YOUNGSTOWN — Based on the deadly earnest, howlingly awful 1936 anti-drug screed of the same
By Milan Paurich
YOUNGSTOWN — Based on the deadly earnest, howlingly awful 1936 anti-drug screed of the same name, “Reefer Madness” helps restore camp’s good name. Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney’s giddy-to-the-point-of-hysteria musicalization of the 1960s midnight-movie sensation succeeds where most wannabe camp practitioners fail: by always keeping a straight face in the midst of rampant, unrepentant silliness. Trust me: That’s not as easy as it sounds.
The Oakland Center for the Arts production of “Madness” that opened to a rapturous audience Friday night is the guiltiest, most charmingly debauched pleasure of the 2008-09 season. Chock-full of cannibalism, cannabis, orgies and sadomasochism — all scored to infectious pop ditties that span the gamut from bubblegum rock ’n’ roll to “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” jazziness — Murphy and Studney’s delectable pop concoction receives a near-seamless production courtesy of director/costume designer Rob Joki.
With the invaluable assist of choreographers Natalia Hagan and Lauren Thompson, lighting guru Ellen Lictra and set designer Jimmy Lybarger, Joki and his tremendously gifted cast achieve musical-comedy nirvana.
Framed as a “Just Say No” sermon on the evils of “marihuana,” the unctuous lecturer (David Munnell) terrifies the impressionable students of Benjamin Harrison High School with the cautionary tale of Jimmy Harper (Bobby Brooks) and Mary Lane (Kent State freshman Brittany Eckstrom in the show’s breakout performance). While innocently cutting a rug down at the local teen hangout, squeaky clean Jimmy is lured to a wanton drug den by neighborhood pusher Jack (B.J. Wilkes).
After taking his first toke, Jimmy automatically turns into a raving reefer fanatic. He even allows himself to be seduced into the ways of the flesh by platinum-blond junkie hooker Sally (Alecia Sarkis). Jimmy’s immersion into depravity is sealed with a rollicking orgy featuring an appearance by a satanic Goat-Man (Ric Panning).
Despite a warning to kick the habit from Jesus himself (Top Hat staple Derrick High), Jimmy’s fate is already sealed. His drug-addled joyride behind the wheel of Mary’s Packard results in the killing of an old man (this act of vehicular homicide is wittily pantomimed with the aid of some nifty cardboard cutouts). On the lam from the cops and ready to board a train to Nowheresville, Jimmy is derailed at the station by wily Jack, who seduces him back to reefer madness with the aid of a particularly scrumptious pot brownie. The “leafy green assassin of youth” strikes again!
To reveal any more of the (intentionally) ridiculous plot would only spoil the fun. Staged as a series of vaudeville skits on the perils of drug abuse punctuated by infectious, wildly energetic production numbers, “Reefer Madness” is consistently goofy, morally reprehensible and well-nigh irresistible.
Murphy and Studney’s score is passable, pastichelike fluff in the tradition of “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Grease” (Act Two’s Mary-Ralph duet “Little Miss Sunshine” is the show’s standout tune). Yet it’s the dynamite ensemble that really sells the material and makes it sing.
Munnell is terrifically pompous as the taskmaster/narrator; Brooks and Eckstrom hilariously embody Norman Rockwell Americana in all of its gee-whiz, Apple Pie glory; the marvelously slimy Wilkes makes Jack a deliciously hissable villain; slinky Sarkis gives “fallen woman” Sally a suitably (Jean) Harlow-esque spin; and the divine Heidi Davis steals every scene she’s in as Jack’s femme fatale sidekick. (Trust me: Their abusive love relationship is a lot funnier than Chris Brown and Rihanna’s.)
Even with some opening-night miking glitches (“Listen to Jesus, Jimmy” was spoiled by High’s faulty mike, which made it difficult to hear exactly what it was that Jesus said to Jimmy; and Eckstrom’s equally temperamental body mike muffled part of her stellar vocal performance), the only serious quibble I have with “Madness” is its schizoid time frame. Although allegedly set in 1936, everything about the production screams mid-1950s. Only Jack’s zoot suit and fedora hat seem truly period-appropriate. Considering the fact that most of the play is filtered through a druggy haze anyway, its temporal disorientation may very well be deliberate. I practically got a contact high just sitting in the theater.
X“Reefer Madness” runs through May 16 at the Oakland Center for the Arts. For showtimes and tickets, call (330) 746-0404.