Energetic direction and zany performances are highlights of slick boutique production Reefer Madness.
Based on a 1936 film that was intended as a very serious public warning, Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney’s 2001 off-Broadway musical Reefer Madness ramps up the marijuana mania to hyperactive levels. As a satire, the joke is stretched thinly over a two act musical, but this is countered by the pep and zip of the cast.
Innocent youths Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane are enjoying an idyllic senior year, hoping they can have as happy an ending as the lovers in the play they are yet to finish reading. Enticed by the local reefer den, Jimmy and Mary’s lives spiral out of control until, like Romeo and Juliet, they meet tragically untimely ends.
Ben Adams takes Jimmy from wholesome, clean cut boy to possessed puffer with unflagging performance energy. Grace O’Donnell-Clancey is a living kewpie doll as Mary, gamely stripping down to her drawers to perform risqué number “Little Mary Sunshine.” Accomplished singers and actors, the pair are appealing leads.
Director Stephen Wheat has developed a zany set of characters from his cast of 15. Energy is uniformly high, and much humour derives from the quirky playing styles. The comedy is, however, just slightly undermined by the sense that the entire cast know they are in a comedy. Some sort of semblance of reality from a couple of characters may have helped to ground the humour.
Choreographer Yvette Lee continues the larger than life theme with her nifty, tightly drilled choreography, which appears to be as much fun to perform as it is to watch.
From a band of only three players, including himself on keyboard, music director David Wisken creates a surprisingly full sound. While the melodies are not particularly memorable, the cast vocals and harmonies are reliably well prepared.
Set designer Simon Coleman has provided an attractive playing space. The show is set on a high school stage, with other locations intended to look like as though they were created for a high school production. The hand drawn props are a fun touch, with highlights including the ominous placards revealing the dangers of drugs, and also the speedboat, biplane and rickshaw Mary uses in the chase scene.
Given the single set, ongoing visual interest is created by lighting designer Jason Bovaird, who not only matches the buzzy vibe with countless moving lights cues but also adds witty touches like bathing the space in Jamaican red, yellow and green.
Zoe Rouse’s colourful costumes are a standout feature of the production. The sheer number of costumes is impressive, and they capture the heightened comic book style perfectly.
James Cutler begins like the Stage Manager in Our Town, and goes on to suggest very odd undercurrents in the ostensibly serious fellow. A charismatic performer, Cutler is entertaining to watch as The Lecturer pops up in a number of supporting roles along the way.
Sporting dark stubble and an intense expression, Jared Bryan brings a strongly masculine presence to remorseless villain Jack Stone. Choice actress Rosa McCarty is quite hilarious as vapidly kittenish Mae, a hopelessly hooked dope addict who will do anything for more of “The Stuff.” Thankfully, the role provides the chance for McCarty to let rip with her powerful vocal belt.
Phoebe Coupe also provides strong vocals as salacious smoker Sally. Stephen McDowell completes the menagerie of den dwellers as kooky college dropout Ralph, insanity fairly streaming from his eyes as ravages Mary in “Little Mary Sunshine.”
Reefer Madness plays at Chapel off Chapel until 4 December 2016.
Photos: Nicole Riseley