Pot play takes you on a de­light­ful trip

Cast mem­bers throw them­selves whole­heart­edly into show’s ridicu­lous premise

Winnipeg Free Press - - ARTS LIFE - JILL WILSON [email protected]­ress.mb.ca Twit­ter: @dedau­mier

THEATRE RE­VIEW

REEFER MAD­NESS: THE MU­SI­CAL Win­nipeg Stu­dio Theatre

Tom Hendry Ware­house Theatre Un­til Dec. 16

Tick­ets $16 at wfp.to/reefer ★★★½ out of five ET the high-en­ergy high hi­jinks en­sue!

Win­nipeg Stu­dio Theatre’s pro­duc­tion of Reefer Mad­ness, the satir­i­cal mu­si­cal based on the 1936 pro­pa­ganda film about the hor­rors of mar­i­juana, is a fran­ti­cally en­ter­tain­ing piece of work, full of fine per­for­mances, zany vis­ual gags and un­fet­tered ex­u­ber­ance.

There’s not much in the way of plot, but plenty in the way of pot as the story of teenage sweet­hearts Jimmy Harper (Josh Bel­lan) and Mary Lane (Emily Mead­ows) — two in­no­cent al­lAmer­i­can kids cor­rupted by cannabis

L— un­folds in a haze of smoke and out­landishly bad be­hav­iour.

At al­most two hours (in­clud­ing in­ter­mis­sion), the show by Amer­i­can play­wrights Kevin Mur­phy (book/lyrics) and Dan Studney (book/mu­sic) is a bit padded, but direc­tor Kayla Gor­don en­sures the laughs never lag and the slap­stick en­ergy level never wanes.

The play’s some­what flimsy premise — in­tro­duced by an of­fi­cious lec­turer (Dar­ren Martens) warn­ing par­ents of the dan­ger stalk­ing their chil­dren — re­volves around the idea that weed was driv­ing the youth of the 1930s to acts of de­prav­ity and sex­ual mad­ness.

Jimmy is lured from his whole­some pur­suits at the five-and-dime by the prom­ise of dance lessons by fe­do­rawear­ing pusher Jack (Kevin Aichele), only to find him­self turned into ju­ve­nile delin­quent af­ter one puff. He falls in with the denizens of the Reefer Den, who in­clude Jack’s gal Mae (Con­nie Man­fredi), pros­ti­tute/sin­gle mother Sally (Brit­tany Hunter) and for­mer col­le­gian Ralph (Ai­dan Ritchie), now re­duced to a cack­ling mess by mar­i­juana.

The high-spir­ited en­sem­ble cast of 16 throw them­selves whole­heart­edly into the frankly ridicu­lous premise, sing­ing and danc­ing their hearts out (though it must be said that on Wed­nes­day’s open­ing night, some of the chore­og­ra­phy was still be­ing ap­proached ten­ta­tively and some of the lifts were hes­i­tant).

As the win­some Mary, Mead­ows is a de­light, im­bu­ing her char­ac­ter’s wide-eyed sweet­ness with an ap­peal­ing daffi­ness. In her solo, Lonely Pew, just the way she enun­ci­ates the word “pew” gets laughs.

It’s a treat to watch her girl­ish naiveté trans­formed into whip-crack­ing sex­ual sadism by the wicked weed in the sec­ond-act duet Lit­tle Mary Sunshine, where poor old Ralph gets his come­up­pance. (Ritchie does a de­cent Tom Waits-y growl.)

As Jimmy, Bel­lan, too, nicely han­dles the shift from “good egg to bad ap­ple,” his aw-shucks de­meanour dis­carded as soon as he dons his leather jacket.

Aichele is a stand­out as both the lan­tern-jawed hood Jack, de­liv­er­ing his hard-boiled di­a­logue like a film-noir thug, and as Je­sus in the show­stop­per Lis­ten to Je­sus, Jimmy, in which he plays the tin­sel-crowned, sports-san­dalled saviour as a Ve­gas head­liner.

Den mother Mae is a strung-out slat­tern who can’t see past her next fix, but dur­ing her solo The Stuff, Man­fredi plays it straight enough that you ac­tu­ally feel for her, find­ing a tricky sweet spot be­tween heart­felt and hi­lar­i­ous.

The mish-mash of mu­si­cal styles al­lows Brenda Gor­lick to go to town with the chore­og­ra­phy, from jit­ter­bug­ging teens to a trippy orgy (the ver­sa­tile Martens ditches his lec­turer’s tweeds for the horns and hooves of a randy satyr).

Mu­sic direc­tor Paul De Gurse tire­lessly and deftly ac­com­pa­nies all the mu­si­cal num­bers on pi­ano from be­hind the back­drop (mu­ral­ist Char­lie Johnston’s work doesn’t quite jibe with the play’s es­thetic); a bit of ad­just­ment for sound might make the en­sem­ble num­bers more au­di­ble.

All this tal­ent is slightly wasted on a play that’s not re­ally one for the ages. The songs’ lyrics are a ton of fun but the melodies fail to linger, and the joke that pot is Pub­lic En­emy No. 1 grows old by the end.

It’s not un­til the fi­nal num­ber, Tell ‘Em the Truth, that the play points out the par­al­lel be­tween mar­i­juana fear-mon­ger­ing and book-burn­ing, or the dan­gers of pro­pa­ganda and me­dia hys­te­ria — by then, it feels like an af­ter­thought.

But com­plain­ing about a lack of sub­stance in a play like this is like com­plain­ing about a lack of ic­ing on a pot brownie: just sit back and en­joy the ride.

MATT DUBOFF PHOTO

Kevin Aichele (left) and Con­nie Man­fredi in Win­nipeg Stu­dio Theatre’s pro­duc­tion of Reefer Mad­ness. The mu­si­cal runs un­til Dec. 16 at the Tom Hendry Ware­house Theatre.

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