By Michael Grossberg, The Columbus Dispatch
Reefer Madness can be silly fun but the off-Broadway cult musical requires performers to go all-out for maximum comic effect.
Just about as giddy and giggly as it needs to be, Shadowbox Live’s brisk production revels in the melodramatic moments and hallucinatory atmosphere of this mock-jeremiad against the evil weed.
At last night’s opening at the Shadowbox Live Building, the cast overacted hilariously and sang and danced as energetically as if many were, in fact, hopped up on something.
Such high spirits make all the difference in composer Dan Studney and author-lyricist Kevin Murphy’s 2001 retro-rock musical, which lacks memorable tunes or especially witty lyrics.
What it does have is a winning light touch in spoofing what already seemed like self-parody, especially to aging boomers who grew up in the 1960’s: the 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film of the same title.
As the amusingly earnest narrators, Tom Cardinal and Mary Randle urge viewers to take up arms against the leafy green menace to youth. Their recurrent commentary, like archetypal Mrs. Grundy, provides the necessary moral opprobrium to balance the mounting pandemonium.
Straight-laced Jimmy Harper (Jamie Barrow, consistently convincing despite his stereotyped role) and naïve Mary Lane (Renee Horton) embark on a predictable journey from innocence to seduction and dissolution, but they do so with wide-eyed charm and later, wild-eyed mania.
More than Romeo and Juliet (the title of one song), the ill-fated pair might be more aptly compared to Brad and Janet, who charted a similarly virginal-to-hormonal path in The Rocky Horror Show.
Under the perky direction of Julie Klein and the swinging choreography of Katy Psenicka, the topnotch ensemble adopts a tongue-in-cheek and weed-in-mouth attitude that enlivens even the weakest scenes and songs.
As the sinister drug-pusher Jack, Donathin Frye is saddled with abusive and violent behavior towards women that’s truly not funny. That, along with some sexual innuendo, probably limits the show to mature audiences.
The closest the show comes to musical-comedy heaven is when Jimmy hallucinates a hippie-style Jesus Christ (Billy DePetro), along with a chorus of singing angels.
Other standouts include Leah Haviland, as the saddest and most conflicted denizen of the reefer den; and Edelyn Parker, who leads a jitterbugging gang at the teen hangout.
The live onstage band helps brings out the retro echoes of 1950s/1960s rock as well as older-but-welcome swing music.
Designer Kaitlin Descutner’s sky-blue, lemon, red and checkerboard black-and-white costumes vividly anchor the story in the 1950s – a weird but harmless update by Shadowbox for a story otherwise well-grounded in the 1930s.
With its bold design, crisp direction and peppy performances, Shadowbox has lifted a minor musical somewhat higher.