Satirical musical adaptation of cult flick a little too eager to please
Published: June 29, 2011
Music by Dan Studney, lyrics by Kevin Murphy
Presented by Factory Edge Theatre Works through July 10 at the Theatre project
Reefer Madness the musical is another notch in a long and silly history beginning with a 1936 church-produced film called Tell Your Children—later updated and renamed Reefer Madness—designed to scare parents into preventing their children from smoking weed as the United States fought to make it illegal. In 1998 composer Dan Studney and lyricist Kevin Murphy co-wrote the musical’s book, and later adapted it for the big screen. The 1936 Reefer Madness still enjoys a healthy life as a cult favorite.
Why the madness? Quite simply, the idea is wildly entertaining. Reefer pits pot against the Good American Teen, making it an evil in need of eradication. Factory Edge Theatre Works’ current production of Murphy and Studney’s musical tells the story of Jimmy (Brian Meise) and Mary Lane (Hayley Brown), two good American teens who fall in love over Shakespeare and 4-H Club meetings. It’s all soda pop and church pews until Jimmy meets Jack (artistic director Lance Bankerd, standing in for Brian Mellen), a dope dealer who lures Jimmy back to his drug den under the pretense of offering swing dance lessons.
There Jimmy meets Jack’s wife Mae (Sarah Goldstein, with a wild set of pipes) and den-dwellers Sally (Ricki Fluhr) and Ralph (Alex Cecchetti). Sally is a whore too stoned to name her baby; Ralph is a former college student who spends his days in psychedelic PJs and an old fraternity sweater. Jimmy tokes up and never comes down, abandoning his virginal sweetheart as he morphs into a class-A junkie.
Reefer is an ambitious production. The dance-heavy musical numbers come right on one another’s tail, providing little downtime for the actors or the audience, and almost every one is a production in itself. It’s long, topping two hours. And it’s a bit, well, mad—it’s meant to be nuts, and the cast has to overexert in order for it to be effective.
So it’s understandable that, as a whole, this Reefer feels a little sticky. It’s hard to point to any one flaw, and in fact there are many merits to acknowledge. Meise is equally strong as a naive and doting boyfriend and a mad-eyed dope fiend stealing cash from the tithe for his next fix. It’s certainly not easy—especially for a guy—to dance in nothing but flesh-colored undies with a strategically placed pot leaf in one scene and still be taken seriously in the next, but he pulls it off with a graceful humor. And Mike Ware, who plays the Lecturer, the guide through this bonkers trip to hell, is funny in a Fred Willard-y way, standing behind a podium in his high-school principal suit and tie and explaining that these crazy dealers even bake little pieces of pot into innocent brownies.
But despite this talent, the considerable vocal skills of Brown and Goldstein, a singing and dancing Jesus with dreads (Lyle Saunders), a mildly creepy baby singing about its stoned mother (Ann Pallanck), and a buncha other hijinks, something here doesn’t quiet gel. It feels amateur, which is perhaps an unfair assessment considering that it is amateur, but still, there it is.
The cast and crew clearly want this production to work, but wanting something doesn’t make it true. Everything—save the enthusiasm—feels a little forced, a little overeager, and by the time the cast coerces audience members onstage for the final dance number, all of the flashing lights and fog and doped-up zombies start to feel like a little too much.
It didn’t help that the crew seemed to be experiencing some technical difficulties. Mics sometimes didn’t work, and when they did, the crew could never seem to find a good sound balance. Sometimes the solid onstage band overwhelmed the singers to the point of lyrics being indistinguishable; at others the mics got so loud as to be splotchy, the sound buzzing like a cheap car stereo. While not the cast’s fault, and perhaps just an unlucky fluke this day, it was enough of a problem to cause a distraction.
It’s halfway through the show’s run, and perhaps with a few more performances under their belt, the cast and crew can settle into a smoother rhythm. There’s some considerable fun to be had here, and it would be a shame for it to be a lost on a few faulty mics and some anxious jitters.
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