Mindy Cooper, a veteran choreographer equally at ease with classical ballet and contemporary Broadway jazz moves, is returning to Kansas City – at least in spirit.
Cooper choreographed the touring company of “50 Shades! The Musical Parody,” which opens Tuesday on the enclosed stage at Starlight Theatre. The strictly-for-laughs show suggests that Cooper is basically up for almost anything. Her Broadway debut as a choreographer, after all, was “Dracula the Musical.”
Cooper, whose impressive credits include roles in the Broadway productions of “Beauty and the Beast” and the long-running revival of “Chicago,” has fond memories of Kansas City. It was here that she began her career.
When the board of the Kansas City Ballet hired Todd Bolender in 1980 as only the company’s second artistic director, the revered dancer and choreographer launched a hunt for talent across the country. That led him to the North Carolina School for the Arts, among other dance academies, where he hired four young dancers who had yet to make their professional debuts. Cooper was one of them.
“I was their first Sugar Plum Fairy, lo those many years ago, with Todd Bolender,” Cooper said by telephone. “That was kind of an amazing time in my life. I was very young, very bright-eyed. It was a fantastic time.”
Cooper said she has maintained friendships with William Whitener, the ballet’s former artistic director, and James Jordan, the company’s former ballet master.
“Todd picked us from all over the country,” she said. “I love to see what it (the ballet company) has grown into.… Kansas City for me was such an amazing turning point in my life.… The board of the Kansas City Ballet was exceptional. I know how hard they worked to get that company off the ground and become a jewel in that community.”
Cooper, a native of Baltimore, stayed with the company for three years before striking out for New York, where she established herself as a performer and, eventually, as a choreographer. She once played Anita in a national tour of “West Side Story” that came to Starlight.
“50 Shades” is a historic moment for Starlight. The city’s oldest nonprofit theater hasn’t staged an indoor show since it attempted a winter series at the Midland theater in the 1990s.
At Swope Park, Starlight’s enormous stage can be enclosed in cold weather and has often been used for corporate events, but “50 Shades” is the first time the venue has offered a show for the public in the space.
Cooper choreographed “50 Shades” for its off-Broadway run. The show had six writers, including director Al Samuels, but Cooper said she really wasn’t familiar with the 2011 erotic novel by E.L. James the show is spoofing.
“The choreography is very irreverent, just like the piece,” Cooper said. “When I was brought to the table, the show had had a previous tour but not much choreography, really. I think I do very good storytelling.”
The producers sent her the songs and she said she loved the sense of humor running through them.
“So I set out to further that irreverency,” she said. “It’s fun, it’s joyous, it’s crazy and crude sometimes — but in a good way.”
James’ book, of course, sold millions of copies and spawned two sequels. And the movie version will open on Friday.
“I have not read the books and I said to the producers, ‘Do you think I should?’ And they said, ‘No,’” Cooper said.
Cooper said she picked up a copy one day when she was bored during tech rehearsals and read enough to get a sense of what it was all about. But what really attracted her to the project was the chance to work with performers from the Baby Wants Candy improv group.
“I had never journeyed into the improv world, and I was not in any way let down,” she said. “The company members who were still working on it when I joined were wickedly creative. It was no holds barred. An idea every minute.”
The show’s premise is that three bored housewives are reading the novel for their book club. As they do, scenes and characters come to life in their over-stimulated imaginations. This production is one of at least three “50 Shades” parodies that were touring at one time.
“For a while, it was very ripe for the picking and with the movie coming out, it’s ripe again,” Cooper said. “Ours is about to hit its one-year anniversary, which is a very healthy run for an off-Broadway show. So we must be doing something right.