BWW Review: So Good It's Addictive...ACT 1's REEFER MADNESS
"Over-the-top" and "larger-than-life" are but two of the descriptive phrases that may be used in reference to both director Jason Lewis and his latest theatrical project Reefer Madness the Musical - and, in both instances, they are equally justified. In all honesty, who else better than he to helm a production of the thoroughly madcap and deliciously campy musical now onstage at Darkhorse Theater through this weekend as the final show of ACT 1's 2016-17 season?
With his resolute focus and encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, Lewis - along with his collaborators musical director Rollie Mains and choreographer Stephanie Jones-Benton - creates a veritable camp classic from the pages of the script by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, based upon the potboiling film of the same name that attempted to scare the bejesus out of movie-going audiences in 1936.
Now, Lewis and his team have breathed new life into the show, guaranteeing audiences will be left howling and guffawing, essentially breathless due to the high-flying antics of the superbly cast ensemble of actors who bring the outsized, outrageous and cartoonish characters to the stage.
Melodramatic and arch, Murphy and Studney's incisive script takes inspiration from the original propaganda film to tell the story of a stalwart young American named Jimmy Harper and his hometown sweetheart Mary Lane - whose sweetly innocent romance is captured perfectly in "Romeo and Juliet" - to show the havoc that could be wrought by "The Stuff" (aka "Demon Weed") pushed upon their impressionable selves by the dastardly Jack Stone and his crew at the local reefer den, located along some bucolic back alley in the middle of the quintessentiAl Small town USA.
As "the lecturer" - played with the proper level of unctuousness and superiority by the capable and entertaining Ben Gregory - solemnly intones his warning to his audience (in a rather immersive touch, playgoers become the citizens of the town attending a meeting to learn the dangers of "marihuana"), the further misadventures of Jimmy and Mary unspool onstage at a cinematically inclined pace guaranteed to keep you engaged, perhaps even driving your own addiction to the campy spectacle that includes three weed-addled dope fiends and their zombie-like comrades, a half-naked Jesus proselytizing for all that is holy and a red-white-and-blue chorus of American icons urging Jimmy and company to rid themselves (and, therefore, society) of the hallucinogenic reefer.
It's all in good fun, of course, and while everything about Reefer Madness borders on the tasteless, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, the story is told with enough glitz and glitter to keep you engaged from start to finish, even if you have the notion it might be even more fun if you were a few tokes over the line yourself.
Mains' musical direction ensures that every number is a highlight of the evening, inspiration derived from the prototypical showtunes, jazz standards and pop hits that have fueled many a frenetic adventure. Jones-Benton's delightful choreography, which utilizes every inch of real estate afforded her on the postage stamp-sized Darkhorse stage, is filled with energy and verve, staged to show off her dancers' talents.
Lewis' manic production artfully reconstructs the 1930s milieu which makes the show even more camp than if it were presented as a contemporary tale and he has assembled a cast of actors who are no less perfect than his zany rendering of the play. Cameron Gilliam is ideal as too-earnest-for-his-own-good Jimmy whose trip down the rabbit hole of addiction ultimately results with a face-to-face with FDR himself. Gilliam's wide-eyed innocence ensures that his transformation into the drug-addled fiend he becomes is wonderfully effective and the actor's no-holds-barred performance completely wins each and every audience member over to the darkside.
Paired with Gilliam as the winsome and lovely - and none too sharp, truth be told - Mary Lane, Maggie Wood gives a startling performance that has her portraying a goody two shoes one moment, while turning on a dime to become the wanton harlot that reefer makes her. Wood's performance is beautifully modulated and she looks for all the world to be a 1930s film starlet throughout, even when she's humping another dope fiend in a scene of lust run amok.
LaDarra Jackal's powerful voice and consummate stage presence ensures that she commands the stage in her every scene and she displays a flair for comedy that matches her singing note-for-note. Her sharply comic scenes with Trey Palmer (who's requisitely smarmy as the slick Jack Stone) exemplify the tone of the piece and the two of them are deliciously vile together. Palmer's also cast as the aforementioned half-naked Jesus who manages to charm his way through the audience with a sense of glee.
As Ralph, a former promising young college student gone bad thanks to his unfortunate addiction, Andy Riggs is raucously funny and thoroughly focused, as is Nikki Berra as the lustful, sex-crazed Sally whose woebegone fortunes include her unnamed baby you just know she's gonna sell to get her next fix!
The principals are joined in the onstage hijinks by Lewis' estimable ensemble, which includes Morgan Lamberth, Ariana Hodes, Brittanie Graham, Sara Shumway (as the appropriately named "Placard Girl" who struts onstage, brandishing signs bearing slogans of the anti-marijuana lobby), Jarvis Bynum, McConnell Lafferty, Scotty Phillips and Gillion Welch. Perhaps more to Lewis' credit than anything else about the production is the fact that the entire cast - every last one of them, regardless of the size of his or her role - is completely committed to the show's aesthetic and its ribald and timeless take on "just say no." (So what if Nancy Reagan is fairly spinning in her grave?)
The set design echoes the overall feel of Reefer Madness - read "cartoonish" and "colorful" - and Leslie Berra's costumes clothe the actors in the ideal garments to help them more easily assume their characters' identities. Dave McGinnis' lighting design illuminates the proceedings and helps the audience stay focused on what's happening.
Reefer Madness the Musical. Book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney. Music by Dan Studney. Lyrics by Kevin Murphy. Directed by Jason Lewis. Musical direction by Rollie Mains. Choreography by Stephanie Jones Benton. Presented by ACT 1 at Darkhorse Theater, Nashville. Through June 24. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission)
About the show Jason Lewis directs the regional premiere of Reefer Madness the Musical to close out ACT 1's 2016-17 season, opening June 9.
This musical tells the tale of the Harper Affair, in which young Jimmy Harper (Cameron Gilliam) finds his life of promise turn into one of debauchery and murder thanks to the new drug menace marijuana. Along the way, he receives help from his girlfriend Mary and Jesus himself, but always finds himself in the arms of the Reefer Man and the rest of the denizens of the Reefer Den.
The show opened Off Broadway on September 15, 2001. Director Lewis is joined on the creative team by choreographer Stephanie Jones-Benton and musical director Rollie Mains. Cast members include Ben Gregory as the Lecturer, MAggie Wood as Mary Lane, Trey Palmer as Jack Stone, LaDarra Jackel as
Mae, Andy Riggs as Ralph and Nikki Berra as Sally.
Reefer Madness opens June 9 at the Darkhorse Theater and runs through June 24. Thursday-Saturday shows begin at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 and will be available to purchase Monday, May 29, at www.tickets.act1online.com or at the door. Reefer Madness is rated R due
to adult themes and simulated drug use.