The only thing that could have added to the sensory overload that is “Reefer Madness: The Musical,” currently running at City Stage, would be pumping the smell of ganja throughout the theatre during any of its upcoming weekend shows. It already nailed sight and sound, thanks to its raucous musical numbers and over-the-top performances. If the cast could have passed the “J” so audiences could touch and taste that skunky mouthful of smoke, then just maybe we could have blown the roof off Level 5 with overbearing laughter.
However, we were almost there on Friday night. In fact, I haven’t attended a show in quite some time where audience members seriously repeated in multitudes: “This is the best play…ever!” The laughs roared throughout the half-packed theater and rightfully so. The coloful animation of thespians lit the stage afire among a gray set design highlighting cartoonish angles (only one spot of green illuminated from a window showcasing marijuana crops). The production succeeded in perfect parody.
Set in 1936, “Reefer Madness” came out as a PSA to forewarn parents about the dangers and evils of pot use. Since its original inception, it’s moved onto popularity as a cult-classic film (even saw movie musical version in 2005) and became a musical for the stage in 1998.
The lecturer (Anthony Lawson) at Benjamin Harrison High School introduced the show and thanked the community (the audience) for coming out to a tell-tale production re-enacted by its high-school students. At the forefront came Jimmy Harper (Sam Robison) and his newly minted girlfriend Mary Lane (Caitlin Becka). They were in the throes of learning and re-living “Romeo and Juliet,” despite their naiveté of its tragic ending, and the portending of what was to come.
Robison as a squeaky-clean Jimmy ramped up that “gee-wiz” mentality clearly marked through Depression-era social activities; baseball, school, and church among them. He oozed youthful innocence through every exaggerated walk and skip, complete with high knees and smiles for miles over his newfound love. He pulled off that “boy going places” at only 16. More so, he devolved devilshly once inhaling that “leafy green assassin.” From smoking the bud came psychotic breaks (thieving church tithes, killing innocent old men, brutalizing pets). Jimmy emerged as a fugitive and fiend-craving junkie, whose demise became the center which carried the show’s ridiculously entertaining plot.
While Robison’s character grounded the show, Adam Poole’s gangster, Jack, sent it to its great disturbing places of madness. Poole nailed the slick, cool pusherman, simply looking to hook his next victim to turn a dime. Poole’s suave and dapper mien made the audience also fall for his peer-pressuresome tactics. His underbelly of maliciousness darkened every turn, and in the same breadth, his return to stage as Jesus (yep, the famed carpenter upstairs) solidifed the show’s best scenes.
Poole’s transition from creepy predator and abuser to a creepier ‘70’s lounge-singer version of Jesus showcased impressive range in a matter of minutes. “Listen To Jesus, Jimmy” kept the audience most entertained in acts I and II. Poole’s delightful break of the fourth wall, wherein he offered the body of himelf to the audience via communion wafers, amped up the cheekiness. Such scenes showcased an ensemble of extreme local talent. Kaitlin Baden, Sarah Burns, Lauren Doughten, Robin Heck, Stephen Raeburn, Michael Savas, Christopher Conner, and Kenneth Rosander made the most garrish, sparkly, and slutty angels as good ol’ JC’s backup singers.
Katherine Vernon’s Mae, the lover and punching bag of Jack, could make anyone believe that smoking Jamaican gold would be the demise of civilization. Vernon’s eyes literally looked like they were going to pop from their sockets; I was convinced her reefer was laced. She twitched, spat, and racked up guilt, all powerfully force-fed in songs, such as “The Stuff” and the emotively captivating “Jimmy on the Lam.” The latter sung with her druggy denizens Paul Teal, as the maniacal college kid Ralph, and Rachael Sutton, as the floozy, ditzy Sally, they added a punch of scat-jazz to the score.
Teal and Sutton also prepped some of the best interactions of the show. Their shared piano-pounding scene sent them into a rabbit hole of memorability, which led to Teal’s secondary role as Sutton’s baby (which she naturally sold for reefer money). Each always managed to coax the audience into hysterics, as seen in Teal’s extreme case of munchies-leading-to-cannabalism in Act II. Sutton’s slurry verbiage and saucy attitude wowed and wooed. Despite a mic failure during her main number, “Jimmy Takes a Hit/The Orgy,” her Chiquita-banana-inspired get-up—and the ensemble’s nude spandex with bright green pot leaves covering their naughty parts—still managed a captivating applause.
For every preposterous note of denigrating propaganda enacted, the delightfully cheery Caitlin Becka as Mary Lane provided enough paradox to balance the show. The audience knew she had sex appeal, even while wearing fuzzy bunny slippers and a long, oversized nightgown. Her doe-eyed candor still oozed sexiness, no matter the costuming. Yet, when she let loose in Act II as the pot-smoking, crazed dominatrix, it aroused. It felt like the culmination of vindication: turning the innocent virgin—who gasped over a mere French kiss—into a full-fledged nympho. Becka’s vocals even managed a vast switch from angelic soprano in “Lonely Pew” to a raspier command in “Little Mary Sunshine” (as sung with Teal in hypnotic psychedelia).
While every cast member in the show felt perfectly slated for their roles, one which seemed to impress unexpectedly came from Lawson. Not only did he deadpan every serious warning from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics as Lecturer, he moved seemlessly through a slew of characters: train-station attendant, Jimmy’s mother, priest, detective, President Roosevelt, and good ol’ Mr. Poppy from the Five and Dime. Each had a specific dialect and mannerism which Lawson injected with attentive impression. When he danced with the kids in “Down at the Ol’ Five and Dime,” it enlivened the stage. But when he appeared in the orgy scene as a goatman, all bets were off; the pay-off as an audience member felt grand.
The careful choreography from Amber Adams armed the show just as powerfully as its satirical dialog. Zombie numbers focused on over-the-top showmanship, as jazzy jaunts, jitterbugs, and belly-dancing mirrored the idea that music and moves of that caliber at that time meandered on the scandalous side of life. The ensemble fully embraced and delivered—especially Anna Gamel’s Placard Girl. Like the girls holding up “Round 1” signs at boxing matches, her frequent sashays across stage delivered easy yet welcoming laughs like: “Reefer makes you laugh at death!” or “Reefer makes you sell your babies!”
As always Chiaki Ito’s band tore through the live music, which vacillated between rock, disco, and jazz. Mike O’Neil directed a show which delivers on an over-acted frenzy of reefer invading the streets of small-town America, creeping in like Communists (“Tell ‘Em the Truth”). It culminated in the most ridiculous ending, which could as easily be reported on FOX News’ “Fox and Friends” still today.
The only downfall of it all: Smells of tobacoo permeated the auditorium as thespians lit up every few seconds. Anyone with a slight allergy may feel its aftereffects. Or just smoke your own giggle sticks before enjoying this pot parody and maybe you won’t notice.
★ ★ ★ ★ (out of five)
3/14-16, 21-23 & 28-30, 8 p.m. • Tickets: $16-$20
City Stage • 21 N Front Street
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