Follow Up: The “Reefer’s” well-rolled

Joe Kellen

The New Century Theatre was lit ablaze by more “reefer sticks” then you could shake a Bic at last night.

Crappy jokes aside, Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s inaugural production at the New Century did not disappoint. While yesterday’s opening performance wasn’t perfect, it worked consistently enough to capture the audience with its absurd, colorful world and the endearing characters that inhabited it. The comic-book-huge romp explored the dangers of pot through a fast paced whirlwind of varying musical numbers (everything from average kick-ball-change musical theatre fare to hazy, stoned soundscapes) and wonky after school special style scenes.

For those of you who didn’t catch the article, “Reefer Madness,” based on the 1936 film, puts us in the seats of a high school auditorium during an anti-marijuana group’s presentation of the tragic tale of naïve Jimmy Harper, a young, wayward soul who gets caught up in the horrors of the “devil’s harvest.” Like the original exploitation flick, insane events ensue because of the green monster, including babies being sold on the black market, bloodthirsty reefer addicts doing anything for a fix, and one sassy Jesus Christ belting his heart out (“Madness” takes a few creative liberties.) The show is tongue-in-cheek to its core, using a ludicrous plot and unabashed campiness to provide a satirical look into marijuana and its exaggerated social perceptions.

Like other spoof musicals, this show can fall into two categories: larger-than-life and full of laughs or irritatingly slathered in caricature. Thankfully, MMT’s production landed into the former, which was nice to see in a cast full of fresh faces (14 of the 16 actors in the ensemble had never been cast before by the company.) The group managed to toe the line gracefully between character and cartoon, adding an authentic and mostly consistent energy to the world they created. Whether Jimmy Harper’s (played by Kurt Bender) prepubescent yelp was carrying through the linoleum laden five-and-dime or the hilarious Lecturer (Garrick Dietze) was ranting about the “devil weed” with fervor, the cast committed all of their efforts towards dedicating themselves to the parade of archetypes. While this was commendable, there were times when the actors fell to opening night pitfalls—the show slumped towards the end of each act due to a loss of endurance by the actors which led to a few rhythmic missteps. These paired with some crowded moments on the New Century’s modestly sized stage made for isolated chunks of awkwardness, but the production usually bounced back.

In fact, aside from its less than desirable size, the New Century Theatre provided a pleasantly intimate space for a piece as massive as “Reefer Madness.” Light designer Grant E. Merges utilized what was available to him, splashing the stage with effects straight out of a copy of “Action Comics.” His glossy work meshed well with Darren Hensel’s fittingly overstated comic panel set, adding much needed color to the black-and-white backdrop. These elements succeeded in adhering to director Steven Meerdink’s wacked-out aesthetic and made a cohesive structure.

At the end of the day, “Reefer Madness” won’t change your life or reveal any age-old truths, but it is amusing throughout and speaks to our culture’s odd relationship with takin’ tokes. It’s entertainment in its purest form, and doesn’t need to be anything else to get its point across. With a musical like this, there isn’t much more you can ask for.