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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
by Les Gutman
Leonard Maltin describes the movie that serves as the inspiration for this new "hit" (get it?) musical as "the granddaddy of all 'Worst' movies". Filmed in 1936, its misguided intent was serious, so much so that it was destined to become a parody of itself. One puff of weed, we are told by its sanctimonious high school principal/narrator, and the cleanest cut kids in class will turn into homicidal lowlifes.
The creators of this musical have seized the travesty in the film's zeitgeist as a badge. Their show is set in a high school auditorium, where the narrator (Gregg Edelman) introduces the audience to the emerging body of evidence regarding the growing drug menace. He has his thespian students act out a tale revealing the perils of mariHUana (distancing himself from the drug, so it seems, by insistently pronouncing it faux-clinically). There is hardly a moment that Reefer Madness and its cast are not in winking lampoon mode.
We are introduced to the super-student Jimmy (Christian Campbell), who is lured from his promising life, his girlfriend Mary (Kristen Bell) and halcyon days at the ol' five-and-dime by a pusher who preys on teens, Jack (Robert Torti). At the "reefer den" (the apartment of Jack's girlfriend, Mae (Michelle Pawk) -- to make sure we don't miss the pun, the apartment number, 420, is on the inside of the door -- where the innocent Jimmy will also be exposed to denizens like Sally (Erin Matthews), a slut, and Ralph (John Kassir), a drug-addled college graduate). Visions of Jesus (also Torti, and here rendered as a sort of amalgam of Wayne Newton and Siegfried and Roy, or perhaps Elvis, whom he on numerous occasions has channelled to create the Pharaoh character in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) don't dissuade him from a journey that will expose him to all manner of murder, mayhem and other evil. An almost happy ending is prohibited by the Narrator, who insinuates himself into almost every depicted scene as a character, usually to comic effect.
Although there's no doubt what Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney are trying to pull off here, the effort is almost invariably inchoate. There are laughs aplenty, many supplied by some hysterical directorial touches by Andy Fickman, but the arch performances run out of steam after a while, and inventiveness is in short supply, especially by the sometimes tedious second act. Reefer treads in the same terrain as Urinetown, but pales by comparison. It is replete with references to Les Miserables but probably owes its principal stylistic debt to Rocky Horror. (Similarities to Bat Boy could also be noted.)
But it's not just in the face of contemporaneous competition that this show falls; it flounders in its own execution. Instead of finding a tight story line from within the source material, Murphy and Studney have broadened it (and I mean that in both senses), exploiting every opportunity to add something we might be inclined to laugh at. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it is when the result feels more like a series of comic tableaux (though never motionless) than the stuff of good theater. Dan Studney's music, a mixed bag, unoriginal and heavily weighted to Les Miz-sounding tones, lacks any particular relevance, while Dan Murphy's lyrics are too often hard to follow and more often than not, lazy. (E.g., Jesus rhymes "marijuana" with "stigmata".) The second act, moreover, features as many reprises as it does original songs, reïnforcing the feeling that it's running on empty. The high-profile Paula Abdul's choreography, not without its moments, includes an awful lot of the predictable, and often seems to have been imagined without any particular reference to the show. (It doesn't help, either, that the cast is especially short of first-rate dancers.)
The material notwithstanding, Reefer Madness includes some fine performances. Gregg Edelman is near perfect as the tightly-wound narrator, gamely dressing up to play everything from Jimmy's aging mother to a parish priest with a brogue. Also exceptional are Michelle Pawk, Erin Matthews and Kristen Bell. Robert Torti is suitably scuzzy in both of his roles. Christian Campbell is less successful, leaving much on the table in both pre- and post-weed depictions. John Kassir's Ralph is two-dimensional, although he redeems himself mightily in one of the show's funniest bits, as Sally's Baby.
Walt Spangler's set design finds a reasonable compromise between the high school production being dramatized and off-Broadway values. Robert Perry's lighting draws no complaints but it is Dick Magnanti's costumes -- eccentric and elaborate -- that excel here.
Reefer Madness is not a new show. It began over two years ago in Los Angeles, and won a bunch of awards there. (I won't ask what the judges were smoking.) So the temptation to suggest it still "needs work," while true, doesn't really apply. This is another one of those disappointing shows that makes you sorry all the talent onstage couldn't find a better vehicle.
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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