Rolling out the “Reefer”

Minneapolis Musical Theatre says hello to a brand new space, a partnership with the Hennepin Theatre Trust and the “devil weed.”

Daniel Ray Olson and Kurt Bender rehearse for Reefer Madness at the New Century Theatre on Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, in Minneapolis. The musical comedy inspired by the 1936 film premieres Feb. 1.

Chelsea Gortmaker

Daniel Ray Olson and Kurt Bender rehearse for “Reefer Madness” at the New Century Theatre on Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, in Minneapolis. The musical comedy inspired by the 1936 film premieres Feb. 1.

by Joe Kellen

What: “Reefer Madness”

When: Friday, Feb. 1-Sunday, Feb. 24

Where: New Century Theatre; 615 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis

Cost: $24-29

Ever since the middle of December, Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s production of “Reefer Madness” has been crystallizing in Northeast Minneapolis’ Waterbury Building, and it’s ready to move. Director and artistic director Steven Meerdink is raring to go as well.

“We’re going to bring the audience much closer to the characters and make them feel like they’re in the middle of the scene,” he said.

Newly partnered with local promotional giant Hennepin Theatre Trust for seasons to come, the company will be moving into the intimate 250-seat New Century Theatre in downtown Minneapolis.

The new space for the larger-than-life romp has the potential to be quite the spectacle, Meerdink said.

“The scenic components are playing kind of an almost cartoonish, comic book element,” he said.

“Reefer Madness,” framed as a lyceum for concerned parents in an imaginary community, tells the ludicrously overblown story of Jimmy, his girlfriend Mary Lane and the consequences they receive from what they call “the devil weed.” The zany satire based on the notorious 1936 propaganda film hasn’t been produced in the Twin Cities for a number of years now, and this is the first time it’s been produced on Hennepin Avenue. This excited a great number of local actors including Kurt Bender, who plays the good-boy-turned-stoner Jimmy.

“When I saw they were doing it, I knew I had to audition.” he said.

It won’t just be “Reefer’s” first time at the New Century. It’s also Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s first production there since their move from the Illusion Theater down the street, and it’s all due to their budding relationship with the Hennepin Theatre Trust.

“We’ve gone through the process of feeling each other out — there’s always growing pains and a learning process, but it’s gone smoothly. We’re really excited to get in the space,” Meerdink said.

That excitement doesn’t stem exclusively from the added local presence (there are “Reefer” posters splashed all across Hennepin) and bigger mailing lists. Founded as a touring troupe in 1992, MMT grew from humble beginnings as a poor DIY theater company and didn’t find a home until 1997 when they began a residency at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Since then, the company has moved four times in 13 years, sometimes leaving a venue without being able to secure a new one.

“The rug was pulled out from under us, and we had nowhere to go. We’ve been really lucky with people who stepped up and helped us,” Meerdink said of their unexpected move from the BLB to the Hey City Theater in early years.

The theater group is glad to find some security in the Hennepin Theatre Trust. It will give them the opportunity to continue producing the obscure, goofy musicals they’ve been known for. “Reefer Madness” is the most recent in a long line of eccentric, off-Broadway shows Minneapolis Musical Theatre has tried (the repertoire of the company has contained everything from “Zombie Prom” to “Jerry Springer The Opera” and Meerdink wants to keep the weird streak going because it’s what makes musical theatre interesting to him.

“You can put your own stamp on things — and not just as a director — actors can bring unique energy to characters and play with a bunch of ideas,” he said, and as far as “Reefer Madness” goes, Bender agrees.

“All of the actions and emotions are huge — it’s the style of the show. I’m not naturally like that, so I’m pushing myself to go big.”