Reefer Madness is one of my four favorite musicals of the 2000s. (The others are The Drowsy Chaperone, The Producers and Avenue Q.) So I wanted to like Circle Theatre’s productions, but as a hypercritical fan of the show, I was prepared to hate it. Well, I didn’t like it.
I loved it. It’s one of the best productions I’ve seen in a long time. Much of the credit has to go to director Matthew Gunnels and Jason Grimm as the Lecturer (evil twin of The Drowsy Chaperone’s Man in Chair), who guides us through the show with a righteous fury that is ¾ Stephen Colbert to ¼ Tasmanian Devil. Unlike Gregg Edelman’s breezy Lecturer in the original off-Broadway production, Grimm doesn’t so much stroll us through the proceedings as he does grab us by the collar and ass, giving us the bum’s rush while screaming, “Get it? Got it? Good!” His is a brilliantly psychotic performance.
The pace enforced throughout by Gunnels never dwells lovingly over a joke (which would be easy to do). It slams the joke home and kicks it aside to make room for the next joke.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Reefer Madness is a satiric take on the original unintentionally camp classic 1936 film warning about the Evils of Marijuana. More info here: http://www.rnh.com/show/87/Reefer-Madness. Book by Kevin Murphy (Mystery Science Theatre 3000) & Dan Studney, lyrics by Murphy, music by Studney. Purporting to be an expose of the Demon Weed, Reefer Madness is not a reverse psychology show encouraging marijuana smoking. It’s a wonderfully vicious lampoon of the whole concept of government induced hysteria. The song styles range from 1930s swing (Down at the Old Five & Dime) to Cab Calloway (Little Mary Sunshine) to Frank Zappa (Listen to Jesus, Jimmy), all done beautifully by Jon Landvick's band. It’s one of the funniest, most ruthless (“least ruthful”?) musicals you’re ever going to see. Back to Circle’s production:
Landree Fleming is luminous as the sweet, plucky, virginal Mary Lane. She also has the strongest voice in the cast. Elissa Newcorn is hysterical as Sally the Reefer Slut.
Ryan Stajmiger is spot-on as stalwart young Jimmy Harper, who goes bat-shit crazy after one puff of Lucifer’s Lawn. Tommy Bullington is incredibly Anthony Berg-like (an actor I know; they could be brothers) as Ralph, the typical movie college kid (aged 30 or so) and not afraid to go over the top, and keep going. With this show, that’s a compliment. Loved him. Liz Bollar is great as Mae, with a beautiful, clarion voice. Eric Lindahl is terrific as Jack. And Jesus. I don’t think he counted on having a fan of the show in the front row who was ready for “You can touch!” Yes, that would be my wife, Margie, who checked out the Savior’s bicep.
I was also quite fond of the Placard Girl, Stephanie Wohar, whose brief appearances are always funny, due as much to her silent reactions as to the signs she carries. And when not doing that, she sang and danced her ass off, along with the other members of the ensemble: Bobby Arnold, Julia Beck, Kyle Kuhman, Melody Latham, Joshua A. Peterson, Gina Sparacino and Neil Stratman. Reefer Madness is an ensemble effort. It has to be, or it doesn’t work. Every person onstage behaves simultaneously as if (A) it’s a total team effort and (B) each one is the star. And each of them could be the star and pull it off.
Anything I didn’t like? Of course there was. Two things.
1. The Dames at Sea effect is when characters are simultaneously dumb as a rock and enormously lovable. If you hear Bernadette Peters on the recording of Dames at Sea, she’s funny, but achingly sincere. If you see Ann-Margret in the same role, she’s standing outside the part and working strenuously to be FUNNY. She’s above the role, not in it. There’s a teeny-tiny bit of that here, where Fleming has occasional subtle moves indicating that she wouldn’t mind jumping Jimmy. No. If Mary has even the slightest idea what sex is before the Act Two showstopper, it damages the number. Absolute sincere innocence is the key. There’s a moment in Act Two of Reefer Madness where you should be absolutely aware that the words of the song are inane, but you still have tears in your eyes for the characters. Since what Fleming does is 95% brilliant, the other 5% becomes jarring. And I’m guessing this is a director thing, since he let her do it.
2. The production is occasionally squeamish about some of the more R rated aspects of the show, dealing with partial nudity (except for the brave and plucky Stajmiger) and violence. I’m thinking this is not so much a director thing as a budget thing: “If you think I’m washing a gallon of fake blood out of Mae’s costume every night, you’re crazy!” and “We don’t have money for marijuana-leaf-bedecked nude body suits – how does black leather strike you?” Since the performers showed a willingness to Go All the Way, I’m thinking it was an unavoidable budget thing – which didn’t make it less disappointing. Also, there was a weird rewrite on one of Ralph’s lines. “Taking liberties?” Wuss.
But this is quibbling. If you like musicals, especially ones that you haven’t seen ten or eleven times, GO SEE REEFER MADNESS. It’s a wonderful production and you get more than your money’s worth. Info here: http://circle-theatre.org
(Director Craig Gustafson has just started his Year of Sondheim. Assassins closes July 22. Promo here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TZ8ey_BGD0. A Little Night Music auditions August 27 & 28 at Village Theatre Guild, Glen Ellyn. Into the Woods will audition at Wheaton Drama next March.)