Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 17
 
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
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Music/Theater

HAPPY INNOCENCE: Before their lives are shattered by “the dread marijuana,” Mary Lane (Holly Linneman) and Jimmy Harper (Joey Barnett) sip hot cocoa and think pure thoughts while studying Shakespeare for English class in a Princeton University Players — Theatre Intime production of the musical comedy spoof “Reefer Madness,” playing through April 24 at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

Beware! The Demon Weed May Be Poisoning Your Children! “Reefer Madness,” Campy Musical, Spoofs 1936 Propaganda Film

Donald Gilpin

The 1936 “instructional” propaganda film Reefer Madness (also known as Tell Your Children) became a cult classic during the 1960s and ‘70s, widely mocked for its alarmist views — “Something must be done to wipe out this ghastly menace!” — and exaggerations of the effects (orgiastic sexuality, criminal behavior, violence, insanity, suicide) of “the devil weed.” The musical version, which opened in Los Angeles in 1998, moved to Off-Broadway in 2001 and was made into a film in 2005, takes the ludicrous excesses of the original movie further over the top (Add cannibalism and sado-masochism here to the shocking consequences of marijuana smoking.) and creates a wild, campy, tuneful, often hilarious, relentlessly fun, occasionally tasteless show.

Princeton University Players and Theatre Intime, with a cast of fifteen energetic, committed undergraduate performers, under the direction of sophomore Amanda Bestor-Siegal, take on this racy material with flair and thorough commitment to the requisite larger-than-life, tongue-in-cheek style. What emerges is a goofy, irreverent romp that recalls The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hair, and Little Shop of Horrors — all within the framework of a warning lecture.

Created by Dan Studney (music) and Kevin Murphy (book and lyrics), Reefer Madness presents and spoofs the cautionary tale of two wholesome, clean-cut, happy teenagers, Jimmy (Joey Barnett) and Mary (Holly Linneman), who start out holding hands and reading Romeo and Juliet together, then succumb to the temptations of marijuana and end up addicted denizens of a sordid Reefer Den, their lives destroyed in a quagmire of sexuality, violence, and crime.

Eighteen eclectic numbers, under the musical direction of Kathy Harwood, span two acts, all in less than two hours. They vary in tone and style, including a pastiche of rock, disco, doo-wop, ballads, and jazz. The voices are strong and harmonious. The lyrics — though occasionally difficult to hear — are clever and funny. Conducted by Theo Popov, the seven-piece pit orchestra, positioned upstage behind a screen decorated with drawings of marijuana plants, is highly capable, on pitch, and precise in its accompaniment.

“Reefer Madness” will have performances at 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 22; 7 p.m. and midnight on Friday, April 23; and 8 p.m. Saturday, April 24 in the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.princeton.edu/utickets for tickets.

As the ill-fated romantic leads, Mr. Barnett and Ms. Linneman are well cast and effectively make the transition from naïve to naughty and beyond. Their voices are strong and melodious, though a bit unclear on the early lyrics. Ms. Linneman’s “Lonely Pew,” in which she laments Jimmy’s absence from church in the early stages of his descent from “good egg to bad apple,” even strikes an affecting note of empathy amidst the surrounding foolishness.

James Mears, buttoned up in dark suit and necktie, ably serves as the Lecturer (along with a host of other smaller roles), delivering with passion his warnings against “the lethal green assassin.”

Leading the denizens of the Reefer Den, Dan Yawitz as the slick, drug-dealing Jack and Catherine Cohen as his much-abused woman Mae are superb in creating vivid caricatures of film noir low-lifes. Seductive and steamy and (at least in Mae’s case) at times sympathetic, they dramatically portray the dark side of the drug culture. Julia Rose as the reefer slut Sally and Ryan Serrano as the lascivious drugged-out Ralph contribute their own hilarious, high-energy touches of decadence to the orgiastic proceedings.

The world of “reefer madness” takes over the lives of Jimmy first, then Mary, as the ensemble — at one point in flesh-colored body suits with artfully placed fig leaves covering the key areas! — presents mock orgiastic, then violent scenes of increasing desperation. The ambitious choreography by Alison Goldblatt and Ana Solitto captures this humorous descent into madness. The show as written is loose, a bit unfocused and repetitive, and at times the performers cavorting on stage seem to be having more fun than the audience.

Ms. Goldblatt also serves strikingly as the perky, provocative placard girl, carrying hilarious warning signs with moralistic lessons across the stage periodically throughout the evening. The enthusiastic, expressive, multi-talented ensemble — with Josh Zeitlin as Goatman, Claire Greene, Dan Pedraza, Pete Walkingshaw, Gary Fox, and Gaby Stember-Young — consistently revs up the wildly campy mood and provides colorful, capable support throughout. PJ Miller, surrounded by a chorus of golden angels, contributes a memorable cameo appearance in act one as a Las Vegas-style, lounge-singing Jesus (“Listen to Jesus, Jimmy”), urging the poor marijuana victim to “take a hit of God instead. Think you can handle the high?”

Costumes by Jenna Devine, set design by Ruthie Nachmany, Alana Tornello, and Yu-Sung Huang, with lighting by Emily Rutherford, all serve admirably to enhance the foolishness of this cartoonish spoof and its extravagant characters.

Reefer Madness is not likely to provide you with much reliable information about marijuana and its effects. Nor will it prepare you to enter current debates over the uses of medical marijuana and the ramifications of legalization. But this PUP-Intime production of Reefer Madness does deliver a generous dose of silliness, irreverence, and entertainment, with much appealing music and a collection of talented performers who through all the outlandish plotting, dancing, physical and emotional rollercoastering, never stop enjoying themselves. They invite the audience to join them in the fun, and, regardless of your political persuasion or your attitude towards drug use, sex, violence, sado-masochism, and cannibalism, their invitation is hard to resist.

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