‘Reefer Madness’ at Being Revived

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FOUR STARS
STOP! Do you know where you children are? What they’re doing? What they could be— SMOKING? That vile vapor, that odious offender, that sinful slayer waiting to possess your sons and daughters, turning pleasant little children into hooligans and whores— why we’re talking about the reefer! Don’t be fooled not even for a second! The madness is contagious and it’s spreading! Why it’s even caught on to a theatre not too far from home, folks. Yes, I tell you, this wildfire of poison has spread all the way up to Being Revived forcing them to make erroneous decisions!

 Jimmy (center- Steve Custer) and Pan (right- David Porterfield) with the Grass Skirt Girls. Photo by Travis Fouche, PhotographybyFouche.
Jimmy (center- Steve Custer) and Pan (right- David Porterfield) with the Grass Skirt Girls. Photo by Travis Fouche, PhotographybyFouche.

Forcing them to produce the cult musical— Reefer Madness! Won’t somebody think of the humanity?!? Directed by David Norman with Musical Direction by Jonas Dawson, this rock musical will have the joint jumpin’ until it’s too late!

Costume Designer Meaghan Barry has high aspirations for the outfits that circulate through the cast. With period perfect flare that really captures the essence of the mid to late ‘30s, the costumes created for the ensemble and moments of normal reefer-free life are quaint and endearing. Summer dresses, full knee-high socks, and newsboy caps complete the look of innocence. But like this tale Barry’s designs have a dark and twisted side; the grass skirts used in the Orgy scene capitalizing not only on the clever pun but also on the imaginative hallucinations of that moment. With over 3 dozen costumes in the works, Barry delivers a mind-altering experience upon which to feast your eyes and satisfy your cravings for costumes.

With little to infer that you’ve come to the right place you might think that you’ve wandered into a curious college theatre meeting of sorts.That is until you see the enormous green leaves painted on the black flats that flank either side of the stage. Director David Norman’s minimalist approach to this production helps to play up the campy aspect of the show. Written as it is the musical just barely makes sense and requires a certain level of over-dramatization to make it truly enjoyable.

Following the casting to the letter and line in this production works as both in Norman’s favor and against his efforts. Choosing to keep the scripted double casting for the Jesus/Jack character is a brilliant choice all too often overlooked in this production that speaks volumes of hysterical irony. Other cast doubling however, such as the Sally/Lady Liberty overlap, do a disservice to the show as the Lady Liberty solo at the end of the production is a high soprano part and the actress playing Sally is not a strong singer with a soprano range. With other members of the ensemble who can be heard quite loudly and clearly in this range, a more advisable decision might have been to split up this double-cast role.

Norman’s push to make the show campy is a valiant one that in places could even go further. The physical fighting and slapping between Jack and Mae could be made even more absurdly over the top to actualize Norman’s vision. It is his success as the show’s Choreographer which pulls a lot of loose threads in this performance together. Big group numbers like “Reefer Madness,” “Down at the Old Five and Dime,” and “Listen to Jesus Jimmy” all feature the ensemble showcasing a variety of dance styles. Norman’s best work is the zombie-like possessive shuffle that seizes the cast during “Reefer Madness” and again during “Murder!” really juxtaposing the lighter fluffy side of this show against the harsh reality of the dark side of the reefer. The moves are really flying for “Down at the Old Five and Dime” with all sorts of rug-cutting, jitterbugging, and general jazzy swinging; the dancing is the bees’ knees in this production!

Golly gee the ensemble is just swell! With a powerful sound that can override the orchestra for the majority of the group numbers they really drive home the electrifying feel of this musical. Musical Director Jonas Dawson works to incorporate a plethora of emotions into the bigger numbers like “Murder!” where tempers are raging, and the ensemble look terrifying. Dawson leads an exceptional live band who are, unfortunately at times, too loud, but their enthusiasm for the music is sensational. The sound balancing issues, between solo singers being unable to project clearly and the band at times being louder than the vocalists is the only major issue with this production.

The two female principles are the characters who struggle the most with singing. Sally (Samantha Eyler) and Mae (Lauren Kuhn) are both exceptional actors who find comic ways to overact their character to fully deliver the comedy of their situation and make up for what they lack in the lyrical department. Eyler oozes slatternly sleaze and hones in on the accent of her character while Kuhn relies more on her physicality and facial expressions to deliver uproarious numbers like “The Stuff.”

Taking on the role of Jack, and later Jesus, is Eric Jones. Mastering a slick smarmy attitude for the role of Jack, Jones lays on the mobster style caricature with a filthy charm. Jones’ dancing skills are a scream at the Soda Jerk when he shows off for Jimmy, but don’t let those saucy moves fool you into thinking he’s anything better than a lascivious scumbag out to work an angle. The smarm never quite leaves Jones’ characterization, which makes his portrayal of Jesus really quite amusing. A hint of that cocky arrogant edge infiltrates his holy performance making this equally as amusing.

Ralph (Thomas Michael Scholtes) is another skeevy sketchy character. Scholtes really lives up each moment of his reefer high, from the twitchy maniacal physicality to the crazed glassy eyes; a full portrayal of the way the marijuana has melded his mind. Scholtes adapts a husky smoker’s voice filled with throaty sensuality for “Little Mary Sunshine,” and brings a scintillating body language to match in this wickedly twisted number. His interactions with Jimmy once they become high-flying friends are stoner camaraderie at its finest.

Speaking of Miss Mary Lane (Karilee Grossnickle) there’s something cloyingly sweet about her. Grossnickle balances her naïvely innocent rendition of the witless ingénue against a distorted sex kitten which bursts into bloom like a hopped-up hussy during “Little Mary Sunshine.” Grossnickle’s strongest vocal point occurs during “Mary Jane/Mary Lane” and the “Act One Finale” where her mixed alto range belts through clear and strong. Her comical antics featured during “Jimmy on the Lam” are played with heightened irreverence, especially in her expressive facial features, and it makes for one of the funniest times she appears on the stage.

The all-American pride and joy boy Jimmy (Steve Custer) gets the screws put to him in this production. Custer starts the show with an over-the-top campy approach to this swell fella and mugs this camp in the general direction of the audience a fair bit. The dynamic difference between polished and perfect Jimmy and the reefer rendered Jimmy is stunning. Custer’s vocal integrity never wavers when switching from wholesome and happy in numbers like “Romeo and Juliet” to the tweaked out insanity of “The Brownie Song” and “Mary Jane/Mary Lane.” Consistently carrying strong vocals that can easily be heard over the band, Custer sends out huge belts of sound in nearly every song he sings. The physical differences between the two versions of his Jimmy are an uproarious hoot; both played to the epitome of campiness. Custer is all the rage in this split-personality role, finding the perfect blend as he jumps back and forth between the two stages of existence.

Taking home the cake (and the brownies, and whatever else is lying in the pantry) is David Porterfield. Starting the show off as the boisterous and bellowing ‘Lecturer’ there is virtually nothing that Porterfield can’t do. Except condone the use of reefer! Unless of course you’ve caught him as Mr. Poppy during the Five & Dime numbers.

Porterfield displays immense versatility in his varying character portrayals; finding creepy villainy in the Mr. Poppy character while smoothly disguising it with a chipper, albeit thick-witted, nature. It’s his spastic outbursts as the Lecturer, blasting the audience with great puffs of fire and brimstone-style chastisements that engage us in his tale. With a robust zest, Porterfield rails violently against the pot-propaganda and gives some of the most harrowing and intense gazes ever experience directly into the waiting eyes of the audience.

Jesus (center- Eric Jones) and Jimmy (left- Steve Custer) and The Angels. Photo by Travis Fouche, PhotographybyFouche.
Jesus (center- Eric Jones) and Jimmy (left- Steve Custer) and The Angels. Photo by Travis Fouche, PhotographybyFouche.

Porterfield’s voice becomes almost savage when he allows the scary notions of “Reefer Madness” to overtake him; a stellar and truly applause-worthy performance.

Keep your children safe from this maniacal poison! You must attend to be informed! You must hear the truth, Truth, TRUTH if you’re going to be saved from Reefer Madness!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with one intermission.

Reefer Madness plays through April 13, 2014 at Being Revived at the Frederick Community College Studio Theatre—7932 Opossumtown Pike in Frederick, MD. Tickets are limited and only available for purchase at the door so it is advised to arrive early.

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Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.