Presented by Midtown/Sheri Grace Productions
Feb. 5, 8 p.m.; Feb. 6-7, 10 p.m.
280 Meeting St.
If you were a college student back in the Nancy Reagan era, you’ll likely remember Reefer Madness as the hysterical (in all senses of the word) 1936 anti-marijuana morality tale that your student film board used to book into the auditorium once a year. If you remember much else about it, beyond that a campus showing of Reefer Madness was always the most outrageous public dope-smoking event of the year, then more power to you.
Yes, the original film was unintentionally funny in the way that only heavy-handed, dishonest propaganda can be funny. Laughing at the clay-footed lies of puffed-up authority figures remains one of the great pastimes in any repressive society. But the dysfunctional genius of the original film was actually a result of its utterly hypocritical cross-purposes: Scaring the bejeezus out of Middle American viewers whilst simultaneously titillating them with wild sex and taboo sensationalism. Reefer Madness likely attracted more kids to dope than it scared away.
Which explains my trepidation about the new Sheri Grace production of the stage musical satire adaptation at Theatre 99: How can you possibly draw more intentional laughs out of a self-satirizing sexploitation flick?
The good news is that my worries were entirely unfounded. This Reefer Madness is likely one of the funniest things we’ll see on stage locally in 2009 — a title that’s usually reserved for our home-grown improv and sketch-comedy acts.
First, the writing — particularly the lyrics — is crisp and clever. As when Jesus (yes, Jesus) sings to Jimmy: “I’m the face on the shroud of Turin / Do I need to test your urine?” This is musical theater, after all, and if the songs don’t crackle, it’s just not going to work.
The staging is creative (with the limited space and equipment available, it has to be) without feeling skimpy, and the production numbers are hilarious, particularly in the orgy scene. Which brings us to the costume design: The cast spends a good portion of its time on stage wearing not very much at all. It’s an excellent choice that gives the show a sexy sense of naughty glee. The choreography is aided greatly by the inclusion of two “placard girls”: model/actress Calysta Harvey and classically trained ballerina Laura King, whose dance chops elevate the show.
The performances are good all around, with several standout turns. Dana Mitchell plays ruined All-American boy Jimmy Harper with an elastic face and plenty of nervous energy. Anna Kristin McKown’s goofy Mary Lane gets funnier and more manic each time she steps on stage, and her sudden transformation to an enthusiastic dominatrix is quite a display. Robbie Thomas gets more than his share of laughs in several roles.
But the scene-stealers in this one are local stage veteran Kathy Summer, who grabs the spotlight and practically throttles it to death, and director Ryan Ahlert, who plays two roles but shines in his appearances as a smarmy, lounge-singing Jesus.
If there’s a flaw to this Madness, it’s the claustrophobic mounting. The production stuffs as many as 14 actors onto Theatre 99’s tiny stage simultaneously, and the six-piece band is stuffed into the theatrical equivalent of a phone booth. So pity the poor technical director: With that many people doing that many things, there’s simply no way a lighting kit that’s configured for an improv outfit can possibly keep up. It would be nice to see a performance like this given a little room to breathe. The half-room configuration at Memminger Auditorium might be ideal.
This one isn’t for children, of course, but you don’t have to be a pothead to enjoy it. Its true subject isn’t drug humor per se, but the hyper-conservative impulse that leads to such hysteria. As the song says: “Once the reefer has been destroyed / We’ll start on Darwin and Sigmund Freud / Sex depicted on celluloid / And communists and queens.” Sound familiar?
For the record, there wasn’t a single joint passed around the audience Friday. It might have been the night’s only disappointment.
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