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Reefer Madness

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Illicit sex. Suicide. Auto accidents. Murder. These are just a few of the dangers of marijuana. Care to know more about what this natural herbal monster has in store for you, your children, and your community? Then trek down to the Variety Arts Theatre where the new musical Reefer Madness opened last night, and soak it all in. For so many reasons, you won't be sorry.

Lest you be worried that a musical based on the 1936 scare film of the same title might appear dated, fret not. The creators of the musical, Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, have done everything possible to ensure that the film's message comes across every bit as clearly onstage as it did on celluloid. Furthermore . . .

Oh, who are we kidding?

What Murphy and Studney have done is to take the camp and the overdone emotionalism of the film and translated it into a musical. And, for the most part, it works very well. Framed as a 1936 high school anti-drug stage production (starring the school's cast of Green Grow the Lilacs, no less), a gentleman known primarily as The Lecturer (played with unbridled glee by the never-failing Gregg Edelman, doing great work here) greets the audience and draws them into the show. The story would be predictable even without familiarity with the film: Young Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell) and his girlfriend Mary Lane (Kristen Bell) are drawn by the lure of "reefer" into the strange, frightening underground where sin and debauchery lurk around every corner.

Among the people they meet: Jack, the dealer, played to oily perfection by Robert Torti, his girl, Mae (the hilarious Michele Pawk), the deadbeat single mom, Sally (Erin Matthews), and, yes, even Jesus Christ (also played - in some of the show's funniest moments - by Torti). The rest of the ensemble looks and sounds great as well.

Murphy and Studney's score varies in tone and style throughout, always highlighting moments in the most appropriate (or effectively inappropriate ways). The show's title song is tragic, dark, and blaring, while Jimmy and Mary's big ballad, "Romeo and Juliet," seems to contain every musical cliché rolled into one number. The big dance numbers for the cast are appropriately corny, while even some of the more traditional fare lands as well, and the revival numbers for Jesus and his chorus of angels truly must be seen to be believed. The book matches the score every step of the way.

Andy Fickman's direction is strong and funny. Walt Spangler's colorful (if esoteric) set design, Robert Perry's splashy, colorful lights, and Dick Magnanti's attractive (and frequently outrageous) costumes provide perfect support.

There are times, though, when Reefer Madness seems to be trying a shade too hard, pushing too far for laughs too fast. The show's best moments occur when the show is allowed to just happen; at other times, especially during a few of the hyper-extended dance numbers choreographed by Paula Abdul, it feels as if some of the creative team needed to be reminded that more is not necessarily better.

Still, even during its more strained moments, Reefer Madness is uncommonly enjoyable and entertaining. You'll have little to fear from the "leafy green assassin" while you're seated at the Variety Arts. And while you may not learn much about marijuana you can apply to your every day life, you'll be exposed to plenty of good humor and music, something everyone should be willing to take a puff on now and then.

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Reefer Madness
A New Musical by Kevin Murphy (Lyrics/Book) and Dan Studney (Music/Book)
Variety Arts Theatre
110 Third Avenue at 13th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Tele-Charge