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.
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’ U.S.A.
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:
And once the reefer has been destroyed
And sex depicted on celluloid
And communists and queens!
Metromix named Reefer Madness one of the top five plays to see this week. They are right!
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.