Fun with ‘Fifty Shades’ — Latest ‘Grey’ parody on tap at Royal George
BY MARY HOULIHAN November 28, 2012 4:40PM
Drew Moerlein stars as Hugh Hanson, Michelle Vezilj plays Tasha Woode and Amanda Barker (front) portrays EB Janet in “SPANK! The Fifty Shades Parody.”
♦ Through Dec. 16
♦ Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted
♦ Tickets, $42.50-$52.50
♦ (800) 982-2787;
When a pop culture phenomenon grabs the attention of millions, it’s only a matter of time before a parody makes an appearance. The Twilight vampires and werewolves, Harry Potter’s magical world and Katniss’ Hunger Games have all become fodder for comedians. Now it’s time for “Fifty Shades of Grey” to get the full comic treatment.
“Spank! The 50 Shades Parody,” created and directed by Jim Millan, skewers E. L. James’ best-selling trilogy about the relationship between a sexually inexperienced college student, Anastasia Steele, and a young business magnate, Christian Grey. Sometimes referred to as “mommy porn,” the books gained fame mostly thanks to explicitly erotic scenes featuring sexual practices not of the everyday variety. No surprise the series has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and was ripe for a parody.
“Like anything that’s super hot in pop culture, if you put a certain kind of skewed comic mind to work on it, it’s a launching point for a lot of escapist fun,” Millan says.
The production, which premiered in Springfield, Mass., earlier this month, is co-produced by the Just for Laughs Group and Mills Entertainment. The idea came out of a discussion Millan had with his old friend, producer Mike Mills, who had noticed that another parody, “Potter Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Potter Experience,” had done well, albeit for a very different audience. (“Potter” plays through Dec. 23 at the Broadway Playhouse, then moves to the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance, Dec. 26 through Jan. 6, 2013.)
Though Millan’s background is in traditional theater, he also has stellar comedy cred as a director of the Canadian sketch comedy group The Kids in the Hall. With a lot of friends in the comedy business, it was easy to put together a writing room with “Fifty Shades” in the line of fire. Among the writers were Second City alums, as well as comedians from some of Toronto’s hottest sketch comedy troupes.
“These voices blended together to create a whole different world from the book,” Millan said, from his Toronto home base. “Yet for most of the people who have read the book, it’s a very recognizable parallel world with a lot of added laughs.”
In “Spank,” a housewife, EB Janet (Amanda Barker), tries to write an erotic novel, and the audience watches as it comes to life in the form of Hugh Hanson (Drew Moerlein) and Tasha Woode (Michelle Vezilj). Millan says he was looking for a certain type of comic actor who could “embrace the spirit of the piece and take a wild ride with the audience.”
A good parody is “witty and genuinely funny,” Millan says. “And if you can keep an audience that thinks they know the story on the edge of their seats because of variations and twists you put in, well that makes it a winning show.”
Audiences so far have been mainly women celebrating a girls’ night out. Let’s change that to hordes of screaming women and a few puzzled men who didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. The recipient of most of those screams is Moerlein, a chiseled former model, bodyguard, personal trainer, dancer and singer.
“It’s like having Superman and James Bond or Super James Bond in the show,” Millan says, laughing. “We’re astonished at the way people are reacting to it. It feels like something they’ve been waiting for, a parody that gets into all versions of female romantic fantasy.”
Moerlein said he’s never experienced anything like this before. “I walk on stage and get this reaction even before I’ve said a line,” Moerlein said, laughing. “It’s an actor’s dream to get this immediate and very loud feedback. It’s like a rock concert fueled by a sexual power.”
A 26-year-old New York-based actor whose background is in improv and sketch, Moerlein attributes much of the success of the show to the talented writers whose “sharp eye for finding the parts of the book ripe for parody” grabs the audience from the first scene.
“It gets almost to the point of inappropriate,” Moerlein adds about the audience reaction. “Are we in a theater anymore? Or did we stray into some wild bar?”
“Spank” has played to sold-out audiences on the East Coast, Toronto and Las Vegas, where a permanent show is in the works. Millan also is casting a New York production as well as another touring show. He adds that he hopes to audition actors in Chicago during the show’s run because “the talent pool here is simply amazing.”
So far there has been no reaction from “Fifty Shades” author James, who lives in London.
“I’m sure beyond counting her money and worrying about who will star in the movie this does not rank high in her mind,” Millan says. “But I do hope that at some point we get to London and are able to invite her to our funny little show.”
Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.