Beverly FriendTheatre Reviews

Reefer Madness the Musical

Book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studneyreefer madness

Music by Dan Studney, Lyrics by Kevin Murphy

Orchestration by David Manning and Nathan Wang

Directed by Corey Lubowich

Play is even better than lighting up

Creeping like a communist, it’s knocking at our doors

Turning all our children into hooligans and whores

Once upon a time – way back in 1936 –an organization (some say it might have been a church, but others give the dubious credit to the U.S. Army) created an anti-marijuana morality play called Tell the Children.
In the 70’s, cannabis smokers (and others) rediscovered the script, now renamed Reefer Madness and, finding it an excessive, hilarious (if unintentional) comedy gave it new life.

reefer madness

When Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney — rewrote the work in the 90’s and added great music and catchy lyrics, this camp version emerged as a spritely, witty, award-winning musical satire highly successful on Broadway and later in film.

In addition, it couldn’t be more sprightly than in the current Ensemble113 production at the Athenaeum.

As the play opens, an evangelical lecturer (played with great aplomb by ensemble founder Clayton Fox) addresses an audience which is supposedly composed of concerned parents. His goal is to warn of the evils of marijuana” which is —

Voraciously devouring the way things are today
Savagely deflowering the good ol’

Warning is not enough; he is going to show us one cautionary tale: the story of clean-cut, young (15-year-old) Jimmy Harper (Will Aaron) and his winsome girlfriend Mary Lane (Amy Stricker) – who begin by studying Romeo and Juliet together, and end up in a parallel/parody of Shakespeare’s plot, victimized by the evil weed.

Fresh, innocent youth, when corrupted by marijuana, become monsters – promiscuous, murderous, and haunted by both the Devil and Jesus. Aaron is positively frenetic in his role as the young lad – seduced in every way by his exposure this evil. Joseph Boersma is wonderfully slimy as pusher lord Jack Stone, a tough guy who abuses everyone, including his guilt-ridden but highly dependent girlfriend Mae (Kim Grossman). Elyse Pancheri is wonderfully sexy as the sultry Sally who so easily seduces young Jimmy, and Kevin Bushwell is vividly and effectively spastic as wildly decadent Ralph Wiley.

Marty Dubin as Jesus nearly steals the show when he strides on stage, complete with shiny, white, gold-trimmed robe and angelic choir to sing –

I floated down from Heaven when I heard a lamb had strayed
Look at you, Jim, your brain has turned to marmalade
I’m here to help you, Jimmy, and return you to the fold
Try filling your lungs with God, and not Jamaican Gold

Scenes are interlaced with catchy music and well-executed dance numbers.  Citing lyrics fails to do justice to the variety of musical styles — jazz, swing, and patriotic, and more – to the clear, fine voices, and to the vivid choreography displayed.

The whole, energetic cast is excellent. Ensemble113, which began as a group of alumni from Niles North High School in Skokie, now includes talented theater students from DePaul, New York University, Northwestern, the University  of Illinois and the University of Michigan, many of whom have worked at such local theaters as Northlight, Steppenwolf and Chicago Shakespeare. They are a group well worth watching.

Special kudos to director Corey Lubowich and choreographer Rachel Friedman, and at a time when so much music in theater is canned, it was a pleasure to enjoy a live band with pianist Mark Bilyeu as leader, Roberto Castro on alto sax, clarinet and flute,  Kiana Salameh as percussionist and Mike Zabrin on the electric bass.

Just to note how times have changed, there is a vivid contrast between the message in the final lyrics and that stated in a note on the back of the program cover:

The lyrics:

And once the reefer has been destroyed

We’ll start on Darwin and Sigmund Freud

And sex depicted on celluloid

And communists and queens!

The note:

Metromix named Reefer Madness one of the top five plays to see this week.  They are right!

Highly Recommended

Beverly Friend

At Studio 3, Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, 773-935-6860, tickets $15 ($10 for seniors and students), Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Thurs, Fri and Sun at 2 p.m.  Running time is 2 hours including a 10-minute intermission, through August 7. Open seating.

3 thoughts on “Reefer Madness the Musical

  • I thought Jack Stone was played really well, the Sally looked a bit old (35-40?) and her acting was unconvincing and predictable. Overall it was alright, I wouldn’t highly recommend it, especially with this economy, but if hipster musicals are something you enjoy watching….

  • Elyse Pancheri is a star in the making. Beauty.talent and intelligence. You’ll be hearing from her! Boota

  • Sharon Bowen

    We loved it. We thought Marty Dubin as Jesus was hilarious. Will Aaron and Amy Striker were delightfully earnest as the teenage lovers, slightly overplayed as were all the parts which added to the fun. The dancing was good and the ensemble’s facial expressions were wonderfully monstrous. Some of the singing could have been stronger; some notes seemed unsure here and there and melodies hard to follow. Perhaps this was due to the wide mix of musical genres which had to be tough to learn and switch among. The voices, however, were clear and clean lacking any of the edginess or stridency often heard in musicals. The dialog was often hard to hear and follow probably more due to the Studio’s acoustics than any lack in the voices.

    The Athenaeum Theatre building is an older edifice. reminiscent of aged Chicago Public School buildings. The lack of air conditioning in the building was worrisome and breathless on a hot day but Studio 3 itself was comfortably cool. The elderly worn seats actually helped prepare for a 1930’s atmosphere. Once the show started we were totally entertained and unaware of discomfort.

    Especially in this economy we thought the ticket price very affordable for a couple hours of pure satiric amusement. Kudos to the cast. We would love to see a lot more of them.

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