Andrew Mertz in Reefer Madness. Photo by Katy Jones.
Music by Dan Studney, Lyrics by Kevin Murphy
Book by Kevin Murphy
Directed by Herschel Zhand
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2017 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
As hard as it might be to believe now, even in the current climate of polarization on social and political issues, marijuana was once viewed as the greatest evil facing the youth of America. I suppose in 1936, when the original Reefer Madness movie was released, the thought of the much greater threat from hallucinogenic and psychotropic drugs, and the epidemic of heroin addiction, might have seemed unimaginable for a mainstream audience. Now marijuana is administered for medical purposes and is even legalized in some states. Even the wave of militant conservatism that swept Donald Trump into the White House will have a tough time turning back the tide now.
All of which makes the musical of Reefer Madness, in 2017, even more of a throwback entertainment. At the time it was first produced in Los Angeles in 1998, the culture war against the herbal intoxicant was still being waged. Fortunately, the material is funny and well crafted enough to avoid feeling dated.
Set in an idealized, squeaky clean, small town America circa 1938, a strict and overbearing Lecturer (Mandi Elkins Hutchins) introduces the story as a play-within-a-play, a cautionary tale to scare the intended audience of students to steer clear of the evil weed. (“Reefer Madness”).
Jimmy (Andy Szuran) and Mary Lane (Caitlin Clemons) are high school sweethearts who hang out at the Five and Dime. But Jimmy is lured to Mae’s (Holly Wolak) reefer den by drug dealer Jack Stone (Jamie Short), where, in a musical number that must be seen to be believed, he succumbs to the temptations of cannabis and easy sex with Sally (Beth Beck). Exactly how adult a show this will be is never in greater, more hilarious evidence than here, with the entire cast clad in ‘grass’ skirts and little else, and the whole thing ending in a delirious bump and grind leaving little to the imagination (“The Orgy”).
Another memorable number, “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy”, is sung by Jesus himself, complete with scantily clad angels for back-up singers, and is delivered with a sly mix of rock star charisma and insouciance by Jayson William Allen. Such cheeky irreverence cuts to the heart of the show, and director Herschel Zhand knows how to draw it out in its full measure. Reefer Madness is a funny, funny show.
It also knows how to move. Valerie Canon’s demanding choreography literally pushes the boundaries of The Alley Theater’s modest environs, using a lot of circular patterns to exploit the square stage, and emphasizing the sexual nature of the material with especially strong and sexy turns by Beth Beck in “The Orgy”, and Anna Shelton in “The Five and Dime” number.
My only complaint is that at times I strained to hear some of the vocals. I suspect that the acoustics are a very real challenge, but it was a consistent problem. A few belted out their numbers with sufficient projection, chiefly Holly Wolak, who helped inject some needed late energy in a reprise of “The Stuff”. The production loses some momentum in the second act, which begins with the book drawing itself out a beat or two too long, and is emphasized by the fact the strongest numbers are front-loaded into act one.
Andy Szuran does will as Jimmy, and Caitlin Clemons sings prettily as Mary Lane, and seems delighted to cut loose when the character drops her goody-two-shoes morality late in the play. Andrew Mertz has a ball playing the most reefer-crazed maniac, Ralph, and if you think he overdoes it, check out the original source material and you will find that there is no such thing as overplaying this character.
Best of all is Mandi Elkins Hutchins, who is near perfect as The Lecturer, a role typically cast with a man. Hutchins uses her tall, angular figure to fashion a comically stentorian figure of moral rectitude, and carries herself with fierce authority.
And it is no small thing that this Reefer Madness includes a range of body types throughout its cast, so that when it expresses the carnal pageant of flesh that the material demands in “The Orgy”, we are provided ample evidence that being sexy is not limited to men and women who fit the very narrow image that society usually provides.
April 20, 21, 27, 28, 29, May 4, 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 20, 2017
All shows 8:00pm – Tickets $25
The Alley Theater
615 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.