Thursday, 24 October 2013 16:16

November Theatre: SPANK!; A Streetcar Named Desire; West Side Story

Written by  Allison Parker
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SPANK! The Fifty Shades Parody
Miller Auditorium, Kalamazoo
Nov. 16, 8 p.m.
$42, (269) 387-2300

When Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey began their startling BDSM relationship, women everywhere couldn't stop cracking open the seductive silver cover of E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey. Two years later, the trilogy now boasts more than 70 million copies in 37 countries, with the first novel becoming the fastest-selling paperback of all time. Sorry, Harry Potter.

Love it or hate it, the smash-hit 'mommy porn' series has birthed the outrageous musical parody, SPANK!, a raunchy comedic spoof of the books everyone is talking about.

While not affiliated with E.L. James, SPANK! cheekily presents the story of E. B. Janet, who decides to write a sex fantasy starring a younger version of herself, Tasha Woode. From there on out, the play loosely follows the major events of the book as Tasha falls for the mysterious Hugh Hansen, whose sexual appetite knows no boundaries.

As far as the heated gender controversies surrounding the series, the play neither shies away from feminist concerns, nor explicitly champions them.

"It doesn't harp on the feminist perspective but definitely pokes fun at the things Hugh expects Tasha to do and the ridiculous requests he asks of her," said Kira McCarthy, who plays Tasha. "There's no Rosie the Riveter onstage though."

While SPANK! makes plenty of digs at the books, the humor is not mean-spirited, but rather allows diehards to enjoy the series' ridiculous moments by exaggerating them in a new way.

"[SPANK!] definitely celebrates the material. I would call it a loving parody," McCarthy said. "Most of our audiences are big fans of the book and no one says, 'What did you do to my beloved book?' There are things in the book that are funny and that lend themselves toward parody, and I think fans like seeing the show appreciate things that were over-the-top in the books."

For those who don't go though life shouting 'Laters, baby' or fetishizing silver ties, the play has much to offer as well. Twilight references, naughty props, '90s songs and even a Sound of Music tribute provide belly laughs for a diverse mature audience. Everyone can enjoy pre-show cocktails and a post-show photo op with the leading man, while a select lucky few (or perhaps unlucky, as the case may be) become a part of the show itself.

"I go into the audience, find unsuspecting theatregoers and ask them a few questions. But we don't put anyone too much on the spot. We haven't had anyone run out — yet," McCarthy said.

While the audience is primarily women, this isn't a women's only club.

"A lot of men enjoy the show, too," McCarthy said. "Everyone will enjoy it because there are so many references to pop culture. It's fundamentally a parody of romantic comedies and their overblown characters. I've had elderly men come up to me and say, 'That was so wonderful' ... It's maybe not for the whole family, but it's definitely something all audiences will enjoy."

Other Performing Arts Events

A Streetcar Named Desire
Opera Grand Rapids, DeVos Performance Hall
Nov. 1-2, show time at 7:30 p.m.
$21-98, students and seniors 50 percent off, (616) 451-2741

A deluded Southern belle flees to her sister's home and clashes head-on with the animalistic sex-fiend Stanley. The story is simple, but packs a hefty punch. Whether showcasing Marlon Brando's lungpower or Woody Allen's offbeat humor, endless remakes prove that Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire is one wild ride audiences don't mind taking again and again.

The gritty Pulitzer-winning classic is reborn anew at Opera Grand Rapids this season. Thanks to André Previn's score and Philip Littell's libretto, music charges this Streetcar with a fresh jolt of high-voltage turbulence and passion.

"The music is brash, sexy and informed by jazz rhythms and an edgy classical sound," Director Brad Dalton said. "It's brassy and richly romantic like Puccini or a movie score. ... When opera interprets every line, it gives shape and tone. As soon as a line has rhythm and pitch, it informs the emotion."

Although heavy in subject matter and mood, the opera refrains from being an overbearing melodrama. Meticulous new edits trim Streetcar into a quick, lean, more direct version that speaks forcefully and urgently.

Other touches adding to the opera's immediacy and accessibility include realistic costuming and an English libretto. English subtitles offer a friendly helping hand to opera newbies as well.

"The minute you hear English and see people drinking whisky and hanging out in T-shirts, you feel so invited. It can bridge to younger audiences," Dalton said. "It isn't esoteric. ... If you've never seen an opera, this is one to come see. It's a wonderful piece to go out and try because you are going to feel incredibly involved. It's a unique opportunity."

West Side Story
DeVos Performance Hall, Grand Rapids
Nov. 12-17; show times at 1, 2, 6:30, 7:30 and 8 p.m.
$32 & up, (616) 235-6285

It doesn't matter how hard we have to squint to believe Natalie Wood is Puerto Rican or how many bug-eyed puppets creep us out before we get to Sesame Street's "I Feel Pretty" spoof. Americans are hopelessly in love with West Side Story. The irresistible lure of tremendous music and transcendent love guarantees the Sondheim-Bernstein classic is here to stay.

The forbidden-romance-turned-bloody-brawl returns with Broadway Grand Rapids' production based on the 2009 revival. Although rooted in Arthur Laurents' original 1950s direction, the show does feature a few notable 21st century updates.

About 10 percent of the play is now in Spanish, including Maria's iconic "I Feel Pretty" number. The inclusion of the Puerto Rican Sharks' mother tongue not only adds character depth and empathy, but also ramps up the musical's relevancy by connecting it to a present-day tension.

"This show represents a lot of Puerto Rican culture and adding Spanish unites Hispanic culture with the United States," said Michelle Alves, who plays Anita. "Problems we see in the show still are happening. Immigration problems and racist problems are issues still happening now. People identify."

Gritty, edgier choreography tweaks and the omission of old-fashioned '50s dialogue revamps the show as well, giving it an urgent and current vibe.

Nevertheless, strides towards modernity never obscure the ultimate timeless aspect that won audiences' hearts half a century ago — the healing power of love.

"People see West Side Story to see that the greatest thing after all is love. It's love that solves problems," Alves said. "[Audiences] are gonna have the greatest night. They're gonna cry and their gonna laugh watching a masterpiece."


Dress Your Wives in Floor Length Denim (The Aries Play)
Dog Story Theater, Grand Rapids
Nov. 1-3, show times at 5 and 7:30 p.m.
$7-$10, (616) 894-1252

Wyoming polygamist Warren Smith III has six submissive wives at his beck and call — that is until one of his wives gets the idea that women should be entitled to multiple spouses as well. Rallying together, the wives launch a full-on farcical war against their stubborn husband, refusing to sleep with him until he relents. But Warren fights back with a plan of his own: marriage to a younger new model.

Shaw Theatre, Kalamazoo
Nov. 14-16, 21-25; show times at 2 and 8 p.m.
$5-$20, (269) 387-6222

A three-time Tony-Award winner, Ragtime presents a blend of gospel and ragtime melodies to paint a striking portrait of early 20th century America. The stories of a Harlem musician, a white matriarch and a Jewish Latvian immigrant intertwine to illustrate three different life paths. Harry Houdini, Henry Ford and Booker T. Washington are just a few of the historical legends that appear in this moving exploration of racism, industrialism and social upheaval.

Wharton Center for Performing Arts, East Lansing
Nov. 15-17, 19-24; show times at 2, 11:55, 7:30 and 8 p.m.
$8-$20, (517) 353-1982

Based on the cult Olivia Newton-John flick, this musical features ELO's hottest hits for a campy blend of '70s culture and Greek myth. When disappointment with his sidewalk mural pushes artist Sonny Malone toward suicide, the Muses descend from Mt. Olympus to intervene. After some deliberation, the legendary ladies decide that Australian accents and legwarmers will help them blend in with mortals like nothing else. Before long, the young Muse Kira finds herself falling for Sonny as she motivates him to achieve his dream of creating the first-ever roller disco.

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