Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Leave the kids at home and come wallow in the campiest, raunchiest, most over-the-top musical parody in Chicago. The Brown Paper Box Company has wisely scheduled their wicked lampoon of the classic 1936 cautionary film about the evils of marijuana as a Halloween treat. Like all horror classics, the musical offers evil villains, innocent victims, zombies, ghosts, sex, violence, melodrama and gore galore. Even Jesus Christ makes a musical appearance adding some religion to the satire. The effect is a laugh-out-loud, cliche-riddled evening full of catchy songs and bodacious production numbers all set in an intimate store front venue.
The Lecturer (versatile Zev Steinberg playing multiple roles throughout, including fight choreographer) opens the show warning about the calamitous effects of cannabis. He accomplishes this by narrating the parable of high school students Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane (think of a young Jimmy Stewart and June Allison) who become seduced by drugs. Abusive Jack Stone (stoned?) and his girlfriend Mae Coleman are the depraved pushers at the local doobie den. Their drugged out partners-in-crime include sexy Sally, her unnamed baby and Ralph, a spaced out ex-college student. Director M. William Panek has smartly streamlined the musical down into a 90-minute one-act, although some sluggish scene transitions tend to break the show’s otherwise brisk pace.
The ensemble is excellent but Tyler Davis stands out in the leading role. His Jimmy is a charming, childlike hero who captures the audience’s hearts, even as he is seduced by “reefer madness.” Anna Schutz is a golden-voiced, wide-eyed Mary Lane, Davis’ perfect counterpart. Panek has expertly balanced the broad comedy, witty musical numbers and dope-induced orgies to create in a campy bit of adult fun that’s the perfect Halloween treat.
Chicago Theater Blog
Reviewed by Oliver Sava
The 1938 propaganda film “Reefer Madness” sought to teach the ignorant American masses of the dangers of “marihuana”, including but not limited to grand theft auto, sexual deviance, and murder. Paranoid and misinformed to the extreme, the film’s absurd plot and hilarious depiction of drug users have made it a cult classic, and Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney’s musical spoof is a wonderfully over-the-top expansion of the film’s best ideas, mainly the claims that marijuana turns people into sex-crazed baby-killing socialists.
Directed by M. William Panek, The Brown Paper Box Co.’s production of Reefer Madness is at its best during group numbers, when the cast fearlessly tackles the offensive subject matter with vocal gusto. During the smaller numbers, some of the actors struggle to adjust to the absence of the group, and the singing loses precision and clarity.
The musical revels in gratuitous sex and violence, and the exaggeration of these elements highlights the ridiculousness of the movie’s plot, the tragic tale of high school students Jimmy Harper (Tyler Davis) and Mary Lane (Anna Schutz). Under the false pretense of swing dance lessons, drug pusher Jack Stone (David Geinosky) invites Jimmy over to the Reefer Den, where his life will be changed forever.
When Jimmy takes a hit of marijuana for the first time, rather than experiencing lethargy and munchies, Jimmy life descends into a mess of unbridled orgies, Jesus hallucinations, and running over old men with Mary’s car. While Davis’ jonesing can get a little grating to watch at times, he and Schutz showcase impressive vocals, and the two actors have no problem transitioning from adorable sweetness to devilish insanity. Some of the high notes could have more power behind them, and there needs to be a better balance between the volume of the principals and the chorus behind them, but Jimmy and Mary’s tragic romance is a constant source of humor throughout the production.
As the denizens of the Reefer Den, junkies Ralph (Michael Gardner), Sally (Jillian Kate Weingart), and Mae (Chelsea Paice) have some of the best moments in the show as stumble around the stage, humping and smoking whatever they can. Wiley is fantastically manic as Ralph, and is extra creepy as Sally’s baby in one disturbing interlude. Paice gets one of the best ballads of the show, and while she handles the lower register well, the big money notes are lacking in energy and support. Weingart has a similar problem, but she makes up for it with her powerful belting and fierce sexuality.
Reefer Madness is a musical that is not afraid to offend. Whether it is through explicit sexuality or graphic violence, the show pushes the boundaries of musical comedy, taking it to hilariously dark place. Brown Paper Box Co.’s production needs a little more polish to be truly memorable, but the actors tackle the material with dedication and courage. Despite the lows, this musical never comes down from its high.