This evening out to see Spank! The Fifty Shades Parody, the unauthorized musical satire of E.L. James's kinky Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, is strictly a social science experiment to see if parody can be funny to someone unfamiliar with the source material. The control group is a consumer of the entire sordid series, Shannon, whose name is changed to protect her lack of innocence.
A wide array of women pour into the Majestic Theatre, from giggly 20-somethings in short skirts to MAWGWs (Middle-Aged Women Gone Wild) in swishy dresses and bold jewelry. Anticipation is high and bar business is brisk. So is the business at the bathroom: this is an event in desperate need of potty-parity accommodations.
We settle in for a two-hour blend of The Second City and Penthouse Forum with a touch of Chippendales. Portraying the imagined making of Shades, the Spank! plot follows E.B.J., aka author E. L. James, as she enjoys a weekend alone while her family is away. As libidinously played with great enthusiasm by Anne Marie Scheffler, E.B.J downs copious amounts of chardonnay as she pens an erotic fantasy novel suspiciously identical to the Shades trilogy. As she does, her characters come to life and enact her words.
In the story, according to Shannon, the virginal waif Tasha Woode, known in the actual fantasies as Anastasia Steele, becomes enthralled with bondage under tutelage of reclusive young billionaire Hugh Hansen, aka Christian Grey, who has a thing for Batman. Well built and vaguely Teutonic, he rejects all emotional closeness and reduces relationships to contractual engagements. To him, pain is pleasure and sex is exercise/amusement. He seduces Tasha and she sexually submits to him, but ultimately peels off his defenses until he professes true love, which is the actual fantasy part of the book.
As E.B.J verbally disgorges cheesy plots and tortured metaphors—“This book writing is surprisingly easy!”—the actors Patrick Whalen as Hugh and Michelle Vezilj as Tasha push back with critiques, more than once exclaiming “WTF” and stopping the action completely. Spank! makes fun of both the books and the author. But as gleefully played by Scheffler, E.B.J. has such delirious fun concocting encounters and incidents that you end up rooting for her. When her fantasy spinning jumps the shark, she does a terrific retreat, pounding the delete key with God-like pleasure at the power to control her conjured reality.
In classic Second City style, the characters show a sharp self-awareness, often commenting upon themselves. Satirical skewering of pop culture inanities is threaded throughout. Scenes are short, cuts are quick, and musical numbers serving as set pieces get enlivened with wacky choreography. But the songs are classic Capitol Steps style, picking just the right song for the parody material. The precious lilting “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka becomes Hansen’s ode to his Red Room devoted to every sex toy imaginable. Similarly warped was “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” from The Sound of Music. Plus a long (too long) song about just what was allowed in Tasha’s back door.
Spank! is shaped by the dry, sharp wit of its Canadian creators, director Jim Millan and a host of writers. But this version does miss the winsome Alice Moran who founded the Tasha role and served as a writer. A comedy whiz kid who was accepted into Second City Toronto at age 18, her huge eyes and broadly expressive face cemented the waifishness of the character, and her singing voice projected great naivety. Whalen, an original player who also wrote and choreographed some of the material, was a member of Canada’s Boylesque strip troupe and shows off his skills—and much more—to the delight of the crowd.
So is it as funny to a newbie as a Shades afficiando? Yes. I laughed as much as Shannon, though her chortles were more knowing. She shared that the production was more butt-obsessed than the books, rather than being focused on bed ties and submission. The Story of O it’s not. But the songs are silly and puns abound. The books themselves were an unintentional parody of Harlequin romances and chick flick conventions, so there’s plenty to ridicule. If you’ve ever had fun at a well-done bachelorette party, you’ll be delighted with Spank!