By Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney
Produced by Studio Theatre
Directed by Keith Alan Baker
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
Cannibal musicals may be an acquired taste (try Sweeney Todd if you’re feeling a bit peckish), but Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage production of Reefer Madness is a lip smackin’ good entry (or is it entre?) in the Capital Fringe Festival. The original Reefer Madness docudrama is so over-the-top that it doesn’t readily lend itself to satire … but what about musical comedy? What a natur … well, maybe, natural isn’t quite the word. Studio’s production transforms a basically one-note book, clever lyrics, and a mostly nondescript score into a quirky gem: zany, inventive, and hilariously sexy. Even before the show starts, there’s a buzz of chatter, laughter, and delighted snickers as the theatre-goers discover the amusingly designed program.
But just how do you solve a problem like Mary Jane? Ironically, Reefer Madness started as a church project, a morality play with a cautionary message for parents, titled Tell Your Children. Today it seems hard to believe that the film dates to the depression era (1936) and not the 1950’s when school hygiene films passed for health education. The original church-sponsored film was purchased by a clever producer looking to bushwhack the Hays Commission’s censorship standards; lurid, titillating scenes were added to the film to “dramatize” this awesome social problem, and if the scenes appealed to the public’s prurient interests, who knew? Flash forward to the 1970’s when a print is discovered in the vaults of the Library of Congress — copyright lapsed — and so is born a modern cult classic.
At Studio, Keith Allan Baker and Matthew Gardiner keep the show racing along and only brake for jaw-dropping scenes of outrageous lunacy (fire-swallowing and flame throwing, no less). There’s Trouble right here in River City, and that starts with T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for POT! They don’t need a brass band, the show hums with heaps of energy. With simple sets in Studio’s small black box space, the direction and choreography are a visual delight, abetted by Yvette Ryan’s costumes. Ryan’s period clothes are swell; her orgy wear, surely available in finer adult erotica establishments everywhere later this year, is full frontal absurdity. When our hero loses his drawers, the audience howls with laughter.
Nevertheless, a quirky show like this would lie there like a brick if not for a talented, loopy cast. The ensemble cast here is incredible. Last time I saw a cast this good (Axis Theatre’s Violet and Source’s Ruthless! come to mind), well … I went back to see those shows four or five times just to enjoy the extraordinary experience of actors in cosmic harmony with one another. Even with slim and essentially silly material, the actors here keep each other firing on all cylinders in a way that’s very memorable.
Channez McQuay (drug den maven Mae) is my personal favorite. She’s a damaged, aging sex kitten in leopard-patterned lingerie: tough as nails, heart of gold. The Stuff rules her body but not her soul. I think she’s channeling the incomparable Jean Hagen, but her great voice and comedic timing are also on par with Tony-nominated Mary Testa. When she challenges her nemesis, Jack, she’s a goddess of musical comedy.
McQuay is flanked by two of Washington’s theatre elite, Lawrence Redmond and Bobby Smith. Redmond is downright spooky as the narrator, everyone’s high school math or science teacher or principal (Yes, Mr. Hester, I will get that polynomial equation proof to you by tomorrow morning!). He also takes on several supporting roles, including a soda-jerk jerk who pimps innocents to the drug lord. Smith is the Blessed (Jesus) and the cursed (Jack). Regarding the latter, he’s the drug kingpin intent on ruining America’s youth. His Monty-Pythonesque turn as Our Lord and Savior is too cool for school: any hot mama would melt for his stigmata; you can pass on the Chicklets when Smith/Jesus invites you to chow down on “Body of Me.”
A “howling at the moon” duo ads more spice and vinegar. Rachel Zampelli (Sally) is the broken-blossom seductress who forgets to name her bouncing baby boy (of 11 months) and subsequently sells him for pot money. Ralph (Ryan Murvin) is the Hound of the Baskervilles, a wasted college frat boy who is beat down to animal instincts. Murvin has a musical turn as Sally’s unnamed urchin that’s a riot.
Young lovers Jimmy (Andrew Sonntag) and Mary (Lauren Williams) are the heart of the story, though the roles are not as spectacular as the supposedly “featured” roles. Both performers are very engaging, but Williams has an added edge of professionalism that makes me wonder if she won’t follow D.C. local, Tony-nominated Megan Lawrence’s path to Broadway. Yes, she’s that good, even in a basically two-dimensional perky role. If you don’t love Mary, you’re not paying attention to Lauren. Sonntag is also a gosh-darn, clean-scrubbed, all-American heartthrob as well.
This Reefer Madness musical is infinitely better than the very good movie musical because of the live energy, well designed production, and wonderful cast. Theatre fans should see it; musical junkies (like yours truly) should see it often.
Is Reefer Madness: The Musical a trifle. Undeniably. However, Studio Theatre’s production is funny, smart, sexy, and totally class.
This is a great, great date show … a wonderful way to screen potential partners.
Reefer Madness runs thru August 5th at Studio Theatre 1501 14th St, NW, Washington, DC. Tickets: $39 available at the website.