REVIEW: Adapted from an old film aimed at scaring people about marijuana, “Reefer Madness” makes a one-note musical.
Minneapolis Musical Theatre inaugurates its new partnership with Hennepin Theatre Trust and its residency at the New Century Theatre with “Reefer Madness,” a musical adaptation of the 1936 film. The material is not particularly strong, and director Steven Meerdink plays into its weaknesses.
The original “Reefer Madness” was a propaganda film aimed at teens, detailing how the evils of marijuana would bring America to its knees. Because of its bad acting, poor production values, and the outrageous disasters that ensue from use of “the devil’s drug,” the film has become a camp classic.
And therein lies the problem. How do you send up something that’s completely over-the-top already?
Wholesome Jimmy Harper forsakes his sweet and equally vacuous girlfriend, Mary Lane, for the demon weed. Even she ends up seduced to the dark side. They inevitably end in tragedy.
The book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney falls into the trap of treating the material without any degree of subtlety. Studney’s tunes can be charming, ranging from swing to jazz to Manhattan Transfer-style close harmony. But it’s Murphy’s lyrics that are the strongest element. Anyone who can rhyme “urine” with “the Shroud of Turin” deserves extra points.
Meerdink exacerbates the book’s flaws, playing the material too broadly. The exuberant laughter at the opening scenes dwindles as the evening progresses: It’s just the same jokes over and over, as the staging becomes one-note.
There are several grand production numbers that prove to be the highlight of the evening. The costumes, co-designed by Suzie Lorenz and Joshua Stevens, almost steal the show. There’s a celestial number, one featuring dancing brownies, and a patriotic routine.
For the most part, the cast acquits itself adequately. As the Lecturer, the man who introduces the evils of weed, Garrick Dietze gives the strongest performance, with all the energy of a revival preacher. The strongest voice is Daniel Ray Olson, playing the drug dealer, and also a very swishy Jesus.
MMT’s success is often directly proportional to the quality of their material. In May, they tackle Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Sunset Boulevard,” a work with its own degree of camp, but a serious musical. That is likely to be a better fit.
William Randall Beard writes regularly about theater and music.