Pot play takes you on a delightful trip
Cast members throw themselves wholeheartedly into show’s ridiculous premise
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.
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.