Review: REEFER MADNESS at NextStop Theatre Company

Now through June 2nd, 2024.

By: May. 08, 2024
Review: REEFER MADNESS at NextStop Theatre Company
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Propaganda has long played a vital role in society – it can be used to shape public sentiment and policy, but also can be used to understand historical time periods and priorities.

It’s also, as it happens, quite funny, under the right circumstances.

Reefer Madness started off as a church-financed film titled Tell Your Children, released in 1936 as a warning to parents of the dangers of cannabis use; the film was purchased and recut for distribution as an exploitation film in the late 1930s, and re-released in the 1970s, when it became recognized as an unintentional satire and amassed a cult following. The film details the melodramatic events after high school students try the drug, leading them to a life of addiction, hallucinations, and crime. In 1998, Reefer Madness, a musical satire of the film, opened in Los Angeles; the show, like its source material, picked up its own cult following – fans even returned for repeat viewings dressed in costumes and shouting out the lines, and the fan base grew following the release of the 2005 made-for-television movie, which featured members of the Los Angeles and Off-Broadway casts.

The musical version of Reefer Madness is framed as a school assembly to reenact the tragic events of the previous spring in the local community as a warning to parents of the dangers of marijuana. The Drama Department presents the disastrous tale of Jimmy Harper and his sweetheart, Mary Lane, who are pulled into the world of drugs and sin after Jimmy wants to learn to dance to impress Mary, and ends in her death and his near-execution for murder. Jimmy’s corruption is guided by the devious dealer, Jack, who has already enticed his girlfriend, Mae, a college student, Ralph, and a young mother, Sally; though Mae initially objects to targeting such a young boy, Jack threatens and bribes her into submission through physical abuse and withholding the drug, and the trio quickly draw Jimmy into their den of sin. Jimmy’s devolution destroys his relationship with his parents, turns him away from the church, and ultimately harms his relationship with Mary Lane as well – he tries to end things with her, but she seeks him out at Mae’s home and instead gets sucked into his new world. It’s only when Mae finally stops smoking and stands up to Jack that she’s able to save Jimmy, and the two vow to spread the word about the dangers of cannabis.

Review: REEFER MADNESS at NextStop Theatre Company
Simone Brown, Cam Powell, Drew Sharpe, Kaylen Morgan, and Melanie Kurstin in Reefer Madness

The thing about Reefer Madness, though, is that it takes parody to the point of insanity – and that works brilliantly. The over-the-top antics, maniacal facial expressions, exaggerated movements, and sophomoric humor are all cleverly layered over a far more subtle and thoughtful social commentary, and it’s in this aspect that NextStop Theatre Company’s production, which opened this past weekend, particularly excels. Some of the best examples of this come from the stage-fighting, which is so hilariously exaggerated that it comes back around to highlighting the absurdity of overblowing the “threat” of marijuana, and Jack Golden’s deceptively simple set design (brought to life by Carpenter Jack Wilson and their respective scenic art and carpentry teams), which is far cleverer and more versatile than it initially appears. NextStop’s production really leans into the elements that make this show such a cult classic, perfectly capturing the campiness of the musical with sight gags, overly sincere delivery, and lots of fringe and glitter. But, as in the show itself, it’s clear that each element is carefully selected and directed with a purpose, and even the elements that appear less sophisticated are incredibly intentional. Like the book and lyrics of the show, there are numerous hidden gems of brilliance masquerading as less complex or thoughtful than they actually are, and there’s a genuine joy in spotting each of these elements. Reefer Madness is an incredibly smart and pointed show impersonating something far more pedestrian, and NextStop manages to capture this perfectly without ever feeling overproduced or trite.

The cast also clearly understands this core principle of the show, leaning into their respective roles with borderline unhinged levels of exaggeration that really emphasize the show’s mockery of the yellow journalism-style fearmongering that characterized the original public service announcements. Drew Sharpe shines as Jimmy, and it’s genuinely fun to watch his descent from sweet and wholesome to a “reefer fiend,” as the title cards suggest. Carolyn Tachoir’s Mary Lane is sweet and plucky, and serves as a great foil to the miscreant characters, but it’s equally entertaining to watch her Act II transition. Cam Powell’s hilarious Ralph is worth waiting for Act II to really see him shine, but even his smaller bit parts (especially the baby scene) are incredibly entertaining. Simone Brown belies some of Sally’s more horrifying plotlines with such a matter-of-fact attitude that a lot of the humor hits the audience a split-second later, creating some wonderful reactions, and her vocals are gorgeous. Melanie Kurstin’s singing range also really stood out, especially since Mae’s role comes with some incredibly difficult and satisfying belts. Kaylen Morgan is the only cast member who seemed to struggle; his Jack was almost too straight compared to the rest of the cast, though this felt like more of a direction issue, especially since he seemed to have much more fun with his side roles as Jesus and Uncle Sam. Morgan performed significantly better in those parts, almost as though he was told to hold back in his main performance, which is honestly a shame since when he cuts loose it’s wonderful. Rounding out the named cast is the incredible Josh Simon as the Lecturer/Poppy and various other characters – it’s clear he’s having a blast, and his performance is an absolute delight. The ensemble, comprised of Kendall Huheey, Tony Lemus, Alexandra Lopez, and Walker Vlahos, deserves tremendous recognition – their melodies, dancing (wonderfully choreographed by Director/Choreographer Robert Mintz and led by Dance Captain Tiffani Stitz, who also serves as a swing and understudy), and overall infectiousness really elevated the whole performance. While ensembles are typically in a supporting role, there were moments when this group rightfully stole the show. The larger musical numbers, featuring the full cast and ensemble (especially “Mary Jane/ Mary Lane” and “Tell ‘Em the Truth”) were easily the highlights of an already fantastic performance.

Review: REEFER MADNESS at NextStop Theatre Company
Carolyn Tachoir, Josh Simon, Tony Lemus, and Kendall Huheey in Reefer Madness

Supporting the cast is a terrific live band at each performance. The presence of live music (led by Music Director Paige Rammelkamp) really added to the whole experience in a wonderful way, and it’s only a shame that they’re not slated for every night.

 

Behind the scenes is also a solid production team with a keen understanding of this show. In addition to Golden and Parish’s work and excellent teams, the production team’s work includes Jessica Utz’s gorgeous costumes, impressive (and hilariously fitting) lighting by Hailey LaRoe, and brilliant prop work from Karissa Martinez. Brandon Cook’s sound design did occasionally flag, but was overall solid and recovered well. The show also featured some brilliant projections of old articles and propaganda posters as well as some incredibly humorous title cards. At the helm, of course, is Robert Mintz, who clearly understood the material and task at hand, and delivered brilliantly.

 

 What has made this mad little show created by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney a quarter of a century ago and based on works nearly a century old so endearing and enduring is its lack of pretention and its cunning cleverness – in short, it’s fun! NextStop Theatre Company’s production of Reefer Madness perfectly captures all of these elements in a joyful, maniacal, brilliant way, and it’s honestly the perfect way to cap off this season.

Reefer Madness plays at NextStop Theatre Company through June 2nd. Performance run time is approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission. Information on tickets and accessibility can be found on the NextStop website.

In the spirit of William Randolph Hurst and the importance of full reporting, please note the following advisories for this production:

Please note, while it contains depictions of smoking marijuana, there is no actual smoking of any kind in this production. This production contains the following:

  • Auditory and Visual Effects: Theatrical haze, gunshots, scented vapor, and open flame
  • Violence and Mature Content: Mentions of rape and sexual assault, physical and sexual abuse, and abortion
  • Theatrical depictions of drug use, physical violence, sexual activity, racism, homophobia, and sexism

Photo Credit: NextStop Theatre Company



Comments

PaigeAustin79 on 5/8/2024

Hi there, music director Paige Rammelkamp here! The band will be present on all performance nights, not sure how the opposite was communicated. Please make the correction at your earliest convenience! Thank you!



AnotherHerndonFan on 5/21/2024

Just saw the show Saturday 5/18 at 8:00 PM.

outstanding performances by all.   Really loved the Teacher role.   but what a great theater.  maybe 90 seats.  sound was amazing.   

make sure you go see this while there




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