But for the music, 'Reefer Madness -- the Musical' rocks
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Is a musical version of the 1936 film "Reefer Madness" really necessary? The anti-marijuana propaganda in the movie is so strident that it is inadvertently funny, having earned the film cult status since it was discovered by herbalized college students four decades ago. Perhaps a musical isn't exactly needed, but writers Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, college buddies also, apparently thought it might be fun, and "Reefer Madness -- the Musical" was born.
Arlington County's Dominion Stage production is raucous and clever, although its uninspired score is its weakest element. It would be easy to make a straight comedy out of the movie, as it feverishly depicts the fiendish weed causing clean-cut teens to instantly devolve into violent, twitchy freaks. The music might be unfocused, but it does pulsate with energy. And that pumps up the performers, helping to propel them into high camp under Matthew Randall's tight direction.
Audience members are taken back to the 1930s as stern authority figure Lecturer (Tom Flatt) says that marijuana, "the leafy green assassin of youth," is plunging the nation's teens into shame, degradation and murder. Soon, thuggish Jack (Michael Reid) and his drug-enslaved crew are introduced: silly Sally (Cassandra Hodziewich), slatternly Mae (Amy Baska) and dull-witted Ralph (Sam Nystrom). They lure naive Jimmy (Joel Piper) into the hazy world of reefer. Distorted into sex-crazed addiction, he rapidly spirals downward, pulling innocent girlfriend Mary (Jaclyn Young) along with him.
Randall's pacing is intense, which is critical between songs where the script often lacks cohesion. But the show belongs to Flatt, who completes his evolution from leading-man type to character actor as Lecturer and a variety of cameo roles, mostly figures of power (including a creditable FDR). Flatt sets the pace and tone for the 19-member cast, eschewing subtlety for relentless, razor-sharp attitude. Piper and Young have a different set of challenges, successfully creating cartoonish characters while maintaining a syrupy sense of sweetness in their love songs.
Jared Davis's scenic design makes economical use of the Lee Center stage with vertical flats festooned with comic book graphics and inventive, movable set pieces allowing rapid scene changes. The music has been stripped too bare, however, with a small band that music director John-Michael d'Haviland allows to be dominated by drums. The loud percussion often drowns out the other instruments in the up-tempo songs, wiping away melody and jazzy nuance.
An exception is "Down at the Ol' Five-and-Dime," a boogie-woogie production number with an undulating bass line. Some of the ballads are pretty, even if rather silly, such as Young's "Lonely Pew." And the big Act Two production number "Murder!" is astringently funny and musically satisfying as it rocks the joint.
"Reefer Madness -- the Musical" continues through Jan. 30, performed by Dominion Stage at Gunston Arts Center's Theater One, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington County. Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, visit http:/