PARK CITY — I admit: there was a moment after I had received the assignment to attend Reefer Madness at the Egyptian Theater when I thought to myself that I might not be the best to review it—only because I tend to border on “cult follower” fan status of this show and the movie musical, like so many fans who emerged in the 1970s of the original 1936 cautionary propaganda film. This performance did not disappoint.
Reefer Madness was originally released as a morality tale about reefer addiction, produced with the intention of terrifying any parent who saw it. The story of squeaky-clean Jimmy Harper, his sweetheart Mary Lane, and their tragic demise after exposure to a local reefer den, warned against the dangers of marijuana and how one puff instantly transforms the smoker into a giggling, violent, sexually compromised fiend. In 1971, the film was rediscovered and reached “cult classic” status playing at pro-pot festivals, the melodramatic performance of the film easily reinterpreted as a comedy. Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney’s musical version, featuring a revamped story and clever music, premiered in LA in 1998, opened Off Broadway in 2001, and was released on Showtime as a movie musical in 2005.
The audience is welcomed at the beginning of the show by Justin Olsen as The Lecturer, as if attending a PTA meeting that will feature “a recreation” of the sad demise of local kids due to marijuana. The Lecturer pops up throughout the story-within-a-story in various roles, such as Poppy the Soda Jerk and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, allowing him to directly demonstrate various points in his lecture with especial knowing. Olsen successfully delivers a sardonic and amusing performance.
Bryan Matthew Hague and Ashley LaRue Grant are stylized and appropriately two-dimensional as the sweetly naïve Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane. Their comic timing is impeccably deadpan, contrasted with moments which are enormously over the top—but remain sincere. Such honesty has the audience in stitches throughout the show. Hague and Grant also have remarkable voices. Standout musical moments include “Romeo and Juliet” and “Mary Jane/Mary Lane.”
Danny Tarasevich plays Jack, a proverbial mustache-twirling, reefer-hustling villain who operates out of a home owned by Mae, an almost sympathetic woman ruined by years of Jack’s influence, played by Dame Stefanie Dean. They are well supported by Kerstin Davis and Scott Tuckfield, an oversexed addict (who sells her baby for drug money) and a college drop-out with an unceasingly crazed laugh. All give dynamic performances, providing texture and a startling contrast to the apple pie lifestyle Jimmy leaves behind. Tarasevich particularly shines in memorable appearances as Jesus, trying to convince Jimmy to alternatively “take a hit of God instead.”
Kalyn West establishes a nicely ironic character as she steps in and out of scenes with placards which spell out various morals for the audience such as “Reefer makes you giggle for no reason,” “Reefer makes you a pathological liar,” and “Reefer annihilates true love!” And she’s a great dancer to boot. The ensemble is also impressively energetic and fearless, providing tight vocal harmonies in songs like “Down at the Ol’ Five-and-Dime” and “Murder,” in spite of a few glitches in sound mixing during the performance.
The show’s strength really lies in subtlety—when the cast does not play to the audience intentionally for laughs and when lines are almost crossed. This is evident in two of the most salacious and potentially line-crossing numbers in the show: “The Orgy,” after Jimmy takes his first hit, and his vision of Christ in the aptly titled “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy.”
Though “The Orgy” begins in a harem of sorts, and Jimmy is stripped down to hardly more than a conveniently placed marijuana leaf, the audience is able to focus on the vivid choreography and remarkable aerial gymnastics. The tongue-in-cheek is uncomfortably lost when the rest of the cast proceeds to unclothe to various states of undress and dancing becomes more outrageous—the satire becomes startlingly, and distractingly, realistic. On the other hand, a lounge-singing Jesus Christ and backup choir of angels has the makings for a shocking and sacrilegious showstopper. Instead, Christ dons a classy white tux, thereby undermining typical Christian parodies, and the audience is able to concentrate on the wit of the lyrics and clever presentation of the scene.
Luckily, the show is generally smart, letting the weight of the subject matter be more “in your face” than the way it’s performed. Dark Horse Theatre Company’s production of Reefer Madness offers a risky, alternative night of theatre in a community where more conservative shows are typically the norm.
Rated PG13 – R for smoking, sexuality, and physical abuse.
Reefer Madness will run Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through March 28. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 6 p.m. Sundays. Doors open a half hour prior to the show. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door, and $25 for cabaret and balcony seating. Tickets may be purchased by calling 649-9371 or at www.parkcityshows.com .
For more information about Dark Horse Company Theatre, go to http://web.mac.com/darkhorseproductions/CompanyTheatre.