I don’t know what made the ad for Reefer Madness pop up on my Facebook newsfeed while I was in Seattle, but there it was looking fabulous and campy and entertaining…and opening the same night that I was taking an 11 am flight back to Grand Forks. Not one to accept defeat easily, I decided that I was going to find a way to see this show. I messaged the Seattle Musical Theatre Facebook page, but didn’t receive a response. Then I noticed that in some of their promos, they had tagged actors from the show. I started sending random messages and friend requests to anyone I could find who was involved in the production; I figured I was either going to land myself an invitation or a restraining order! Luckily the lovely and talented Allyson Lake-Jacobs got my message and put me in touch with the director, Steven Fogell, who was willing to let me crash their final tech rehearsal! I’m so glad that these two lovely individuals decided that I wasn’t crazy – or that I was just crazy enough that I had to see this show! Either way, I had a lovely time, and here is the review to prove it. Spoilers ahead! If you are from or will be visiting Seattle during the run of this show, I highly recommend checking it out and you should read at your own peril. XOXO – Miss Jaye
Having taken a couple of turns in community theatre myself, I know the excitement and exhaustion of tech week: those final few days where you’re finally running the whole show with costumes and lights and all the trimmings – and working out any of the final bugs. It can be stressful, testing limits and tempers, but there is also an electricity that builds as this wonderful, magical thing you are all creating is finally starting to take shape and look like an actual, fully realized, dynamic, honest-to-goodness show. Even as you battle with microphone tape and last minute blocking changes, sound check and lost shoes, the energy and hard work coalesces into a vibrant theatrical experience. I consider myself fortunate to have had a chance to see part of that final preparation. Yes, of course it’s nice to go and just see a polished piece of theatre lovingly produced, but for those of us who totally nerd out on the process, it can fascinating to see even a little of the “behind the scenes” work and personalities that go into bringing a production to the stage. And one thing is for sure: this group is having a hell of a lot of fun.
Reefer Madness, the original, was a propaganda film from the 30s about the terrifying dangers of marijuana. And what dangers they were: addiction, manslaughter, rape, suicide – the list of dastardly deeds these drug-addled teens were committing was long indeed. The film has developed a bit of a cult following and is a popular selection at midnight movie houses; in 1998, a satirical musical version first opened and was seen in various incarnations with a film version released in 2005 featuring Christian Campbell as Jimmy Harper and Kristen Bell as Mary Lane. All of the campy melodrama of the original film is present and accounted for, twisted and amplified with a sly wink to the audience. This musical is the show currently on the boards for the Seattle Musical Theatre, located in Seattle’s Magnuson Park neighborhood.
The show follows good guy Jimmy Harper (Jaron Boggs) as he attempts to court the eternally smiling Mary Lane (Allyson Lake-Jacobs), only to be detoured into a life of depravity by unscrupulous dope pusher Jack (Garrett Dill); once hooked, he spends all his free time at Mae’s (Tae Phoenix) dope den with shady characters like the hyena-voiced Ralph (Benjamin Cournoyer) and oversexed sometimes-single-mother Sally (Larissa Schmitz) who sells her baby to keep up her supply. Although Mary Lane loves Jimmy and imagines they will have a great and happy love story like Romeo and Juliet (a running joke, of course, being that she never actually read all the way to the end), she can’t understand his new erratic behavior. Boggs and Lake-Jacobs play well off each other: she is relentless perky optimism even as his behavior becomes stranger and more cartoonish, bringing a certain level of camp to the show that helps elevate the propagandist source material.
And there is definitely enough camp to go around. Mae, despite her maternal feelings towards Jimmy, just isn’t able to escape from Jack and the pull of “the stuff” – until she eventually picks up a garden hoe and asserts her bloody independence. Phoenix has some serious pipes and occasionally comes off as more of a take-charge diva than a simpering dope fiend, but her portrayal of Mae is vulnerable and generally likeable, and her hysterics while murdering Jack are gleefully entertaining. Before his not-quite-timely-enough demise, Jack himself gets to do plenty of damage and Dill harnesses every cliché of the film noir gangster villain in the best way possible to bring his character to life. He’s smugly charming, luring Jimmy to the den with the promise of dance lessons to help woo Mary Lane, and turns on a dime to icy malice if Mae or one of his other junkies gets out of line.
Schmitz’s Sally is bawdy and sexual and while she doesn’t really have much in the way of redeeming qualities, she’s certainly good fun. And if Roger Rabbit had a baby with Larry Flynt who was given away to be raised by Cheech Marin, you might get a pretty close approximation of Cournoyer’s Ralph with his rubber-legged tumbles, insatiable appetites, and ear-splitting cackle. Any time these two appeared onstage, I knew I was in for wacky, over the top antics and these two never disappointed.
The rest of the ensemble, made up of Alex Ung, Christopher Ellis, Nickolai Mell (who looks delicious in a loincloth in a fantastic turn as Jesus), Nikole Delmarter, Ty Bonneville, Victor Matlock, and the delightful Michelle Abad as The Placard Girl (just in case the piece’s morality isn’t quite obvious to you, she is there to direct your attention to various signs warning of marijuana’s dangers!), is talented and provides great support to the main cast; the fact that there are several scenes of attractive men in scant clothing doesn’t hurt the theatrical experience either! Seriously, those boys should look me up the next time I’m in town – I can always use a good distraction! But now I’ve gone and gotten myself distracted and almost forgot to talk about the Lecturer (Ryan Glasscock).
In an era before the wretched infotainment of Faux News, there was the Lecturer: a straight-laced white guy in a suit travelling from town to town, warning of the terrible danger posed by that devil, reefer. His lecture to the audience under the guise of a special presentation to parents at a local high school is the frame for the story. He is direct, humorless, and unwavering, and Glasscock does a fine job of remaining stone-faced next to the ridiculous shenanigans of his castmates. That’s not to say that he doesn’t get the chance to cut loose, switching into other characters (such as the malt shop owner) to help move the story along. He’s got a lot to do, and there are moments when his performance does seem a little winded, but he holds up well and serves as a static centrifuge around which the crazed action can spin. Whether or not he can convince you to put down that joint and give yourself up to a higher purpose is only for you to decide.
Being that it was a tech rehearsal, there were a few moments that didn’t go according to plan and the tech crew was working furiously to correct levels and get all of the sound under control and running smoothly, but you could see all of the hard work put in by the cast and crew even as they were polishing the final facets. The choreography was lively and interesting, and the costumes were fantastic – everything the actors wore seemed to fit like a dream and created a coherent and colorful stage picture. Fogell’s directing allowed the actors to explore the camp and humor of the show without tipping over into frivolousness.
However you might feel about marijuana, its pleasures or its perils, one things is sure: Seattle Musical Theatre’s production of Reefer Madness is a fun and entertaining night out. Come for the moral lessons, stay for the strong performances and technical prowess! The show runs through October 30, tickets are $25, and more information can be found on the SMT’s Facebook page linked above in the intro! Thanks again to the cast, crew, and director Steven Fogell for letting me take part in your final preparations for this zany and hilarious show!
Tags: Alan Cumming, Alex Ung, Allyson Lake-Jacobs, Benjamin Cournoyer, Champagne Dreams Productions, Christian Campbell, Christopher Ellis, community theatre, Garrett Dill, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jaron Boggs, Kristen Bell, Larissa Schmitz, Michelle Abad, Miss Jaye, Neve Campbell, Nikolai Mell, Nikole Delmarter, Reefer Madness, Reefer Madness 1936, Ryan Glasscock, Seattle, Seattle Musical Theatre, Stephen Fogell, Tae Phoenix, Ty Bonneville, Victor Matlock, World of Champagne