News Column

Chicago improv vets take on '50 Shades'

October 22, 2013


If it hadn't been for an Evanston entrepreneur catching a news report about hardware stores experiencing rope shortages resulting from the popularity of the best-selling novel "50 Shades of Grey," "50 Shades! The Musical" might never have happened.

It was businessman Marshall Cordell who suggested to writer/ director/producers Albert Samuels and Emily Dorezas the comedic potential of E.L. James' erotic novel turned pop culture phenomenon.

Samuels, a veteran of Second City and founding member of Chicago's Baby Wants Candy, agreed immediately.

"I was the least skeptical and most optimistic," Samuels said.

The novel is derivative, he says, with "the worst metaphors and imagery ever." But it's a love story. And Samuels believed he, Dorezas and their colleagues could write a love story musical.

The result is an adults-only parody -- now in Chicago -- whose creative team draws heavily from the Baby Wants Candy ensemble.

Work began in July 2012. The following month, an early version of "50 Shades! The Musical" debuted at Edinburgh's annual fringe festival. Several months and several revisions later, they took the show on the road.

They're back again for a brief run at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. Meanwhile, a version of the show is being workshopped in New York City. Set to begin previews off-Broadway in November, ahead of a January 2014 opening, it will include the best from the touring and workshop productions, Samuels said.

Audience members don't have to have read the book to appreciate the show, Dorezas said. In fact, of the six people who helped create the musical, three read the book and three didn't. (Among those who read the book was Samuels, who jokes that it took him about 18 minutes.)

Because the novel appealed primarily to women, they used a book club as a framing device.

"We didn't want to leave people (who haven't read the book) in the dust. The book club members are there to hold your hands," Dorezas said.

The show doesn't shy away from the book's steamy subject matter.

"It's a story with heart told in a way where we're not afraid to push the envelope in every direction," she said.

If it's well-written, if the music is good. if the characters are compelling and if the story has heart, audiences will be on board, Samuels said. "50 Shades! The Musical" has all that plus a kind of goofball sensibility that he believes will endear it to audiences.

"There are plenty of cheap, bawdy jokes and bits. But our show isn't cheap. It doesn't take potshots," Samuels said. "That would be too easy."

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