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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Wayward Actors’ “Reefer Madness”: A Descent into Depravity and Laughter


Reefer Madness: The Musical

Book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney
Music by Dan Studney
Lyrics by Kevin Murphy
Music Direction by Mason Stewart
Choreography by Kathy Todd Chaney
Directed by Craig Nolan

Reviewed by J. Barrett Cooper

Entire contents are copyright © 2012, J. Barrett Cooper. All rights reserved.


Jeff Mangum, Richard Goff and David Borgelt in
Reefer Madness, The Musical. Photo by Craig Nolan Highley.
On Friday last, Wayward Actors Company kicked off their tenth season with a rousing, rollicking and somewhat uneven performance of a musical based on the 1936 church-based propaganda-film-turned-cult-classic, Reefer Madness.

The story revolves around the perfect American teenage couple, Jimmy Harper (Richard Goff) and Mary Lane (Taylor Buchanan). Both are bright, studious, and so, so much in love as their little 1930s hearts could be. They are destined to a life of small-town pink houses and picket fences. However, call it fate, destiny or what-have-you, but their lives are torn apart by the insouciant evils of the “demon weed” Cannabis Sativa! Jimmy is unknowingly lured to a den of sins by tough guy Jack Stone with a promise of dancing lessons. But what he finds is a house of THC-fueled bondage, sex, slavery and violence. Jimmy’s girl, Mae (Kathy Todd Chaney), was once an innocent teenager until Jack got her hooked on the stuff, and now she lives in misery. Also in the house are super-sexy-over-sexed Sally (Meredith McBride) and Ralph (Craig Nolan Highley), a man whose mental growth has been stunted by his addiction to the “Mary Jane.” What ensues is a descent into madness, despair, suicide, car chases, violence, lectures, and hallucinations of Goat Man (Jeff Mangum) and Jesus (David Borgelt). Everything you’d want from a musical.

Craig Nolan Highley has directed a fun evening. His use of the stage at the MeX is well done. However, the action does come to a screeching halt with some ill-timed and show-stopping (literally…the show stopped) set changes, which was a “buzz kill” to the non-stop action. However, he was able to keep a “lid” on the actors from going too far with the craziness that could have spun out of control. In my opinion, his use of the Stage Manager, Janice Walter, as a character was not needed and was rather incongruous to the action.

The cast fared well. Aside from some opening night jitters, the large cast was game and put a ton of energy into the dance numbers (fantastically choreographed by Kathy Todd Chaney). Richard Goff (Jimmy Harper) was the picture of innocence and captured the purity and the angst of small town boy and drug-addled freak. His counterpart, Taylor Buchanan (Mary Jane…yes, I believe the pun is intended), was just stellar as the girl of Jimmy’s dreams – the perfect Juliet to his Romeo. These two young actors showed bright through the haze. Their voices were clear and strong, only somewhat overshadowed by the music at times, due to the fact that no one was amplified. This could at times prove a liability. I appreciated the fact that this was done. It’s not easy to do; and for the most part, everyone was able to top the musical accompaniment – not all. But I do worry about their voices having to push. I also realize budgetary concerns might have precluded the procurement of microphones.

As for the dope pusher gangster Jack Stone, Daniel Smith was physically a man of intimidation which, unfortunately, was not used to good effect. I feel that a good dose of genuine violence and threat would have counter-balanced the parody of the play itself. Mr. Stone does not have the strongest voice, but his intent was there. His girl Mae (Mary Todd Chaney), a slave to her addiction, had a nice turn in the number “The Stuff.” But I felt her performance was not as committed, in the sense of energy and timing, as others, which left an imbalance to her scenes. However, Ms. Chaney’s strength was very apparent as the choreographer of the show. Numbers such as “Down at the Ol’ Five and Dime” and “Open the Gates” were smokin’! Stellar job. 

The two other denizens, Sally and Ralph, were gamely played by Meredith McBride and Craig Nolan Highley. Ms. McBride used her statuesque figure and red hair to seductive and lustful effect, while also being able to portray a tragic sense of a woman so desperate that she sells her baby in order to support her habit. Being a father myself, I usually find this revolting. And although it’s played with a sense of fun and comedy, “Lullabye,” sung by Sally’s Baby (played by Dennis “Denny” Grinar), drew me to the ultimate tragic core of the story, which, of course, is that marijuana isn’t just a stepping stone drug. It IS the THE drug! Mr. Highley, who also directed the piece, plays Ralph, a man so retarded by his over-use and abuse of the drug that his days are spent listening to the furious piano playing of Sally and where he can score some more. Mr. Highley teeters on the edge of ridiculous but never fully allows himself to lose his sense of propriety, which could have been easy to do with this character.

Others in the cast of note are Karissa Kathryn, who played Miss Poppy, the malt shop owner who is also a bawd for the gangster/pimp/pusher Jack Stone. She has a wonderful presence and a strong voice. Two performances which make the evening very fun are Jeff Mangum’s (Goat Man) and David Borgelt’s (Jesus). Mr. Mangum’s super abundance of body hair and his laissez-faire attitude towards the deflowering and degradation of our hero and heroine was fun to watch. Mr. Borgelt’s stint in the role of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus the Christ, was one of sheer enjoyment. His voice was strong, but amplification would have really benefitted what this reviewer took to be a definite musical nod to the Lloyd Webber/Rice Jesus Christ Superstar, with moments where I could hear Ian Gilliam screeching his famous rendition. Mr. Borgelt’s almost prissy presence of purity and good was a wonderful counter to Mr. Mangum’s Goat Man.

The chorus was physically able and willing, but lacking in vocal power as an ensemble. Dance numbers were strong and wonderful to experience. But, even without amplification, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of all-out sound. Other voices, such as Mr. Goff and Ms. Buchanan, were well able to rise to the occasion.

However, the strongest performance of the evening belonged to Mr. Ted Lesley. The Lecturer begins the evening by going through the mandatory “curtain speech” and then launches right into the action of the play itself. Nice touch, although there was a clear delineation between curtain speech and scripted material; it would have been very strong if there had not of been. Mr. Lesley, though, is hilarious in his self-righteousness and his ability to turn everything into an evil or plot against the good youth of America. He is our guide through the tragedy that ensues and never fails to make us know how he feels about all things that will destroy this country, especially drugs, sex and Communism! Mr. Lesley’s talent and presence is the strongest of the bunch.

Mr. Highley’s production is an enjoyable evening. If you are not looking for high dollar production values that get trucked into the neighboring theatre downstairs, but are willing to get your money’s worth in fun and frolic, then Reefer Madness is a must.

Reefer Madness: The Musical

October 5, 6, 8, 12 & 13 @ 8:00 p.m.
October 14 @ 2:00pm
Wayward Actors Company
The MeX Theatre, Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
502-584-7777

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