Reefer Madness produced by Minneapolis Musical Theatre

Hennepin Theatre Trust and Minneapolis Musical Theatre (MMT) have teamed up to present a new musical inspired by the 1936 film, Reefer Madness, which dramatizes (like the movie)  the downward spiral of clean-cut kids lured into using the “evil weed,” inevitably leading to debauchery and violence. The movie expected to be taken seriously. This show, of course, does not.

Reefer Madness, the Musical, with book and lyrics by Kevin Murphy and music by Dan Studney, got its start in Los Angeles and had an off-Broadway run in 2001. MMT Director Steven Meerdink saw silly, campy fun in the show, which indeed it is.

The 1936 movie has suffered much well-deserved derision, mostly for taking itself too seriously, and taking its premise too far. Something similar could be said about the musical theater version. Although there’s nothing wrong with a bit of campy fun, broadly played, tongue-in-cheek humor is far richer when it’s not diluted with quite so much schtick. Kurt Bender as the innocent high school kid, Jimmy Harper, and Amanda Weis as his sweetheart, Mary Lane, were cute and charming in this simple tale, and had a nice chemistry together.

A little raunchy, a little sweet, a lot of silly (a swishy Jesus frontman comes to rescue him, for example) the show carries poor Jimmy’s descent into “reefer madness” blithely into the realm of the absurd. Think cartoon characters. Relentlessly being cartoon characters. (Tragedy needs comic relief; even light sarcasm could use a rest, too. All that over-the-top line delivery and singing pushed capable singers into straining for notes and amperage unnecessarily. For example, Maggie Mae Dale as Mae, Daniel Ray Olson as Jack and Garrick Dietze as The Lecturer held down a lot of real estate in this vocal book. Every once in a while we got a phrase or two revealing just how solid and versatile they are as singers—when they weren’t falling off the goofiness wagon.

Choreography nicely serviced the songs, but it was dealing with less-than-inspired music that had the feel of a composer’s idea of what musical theater sounds like, rather than a representation of the composer’s original musical thoughts. Lyrics were frequently clever, but with a touch of the “look at how clever I’m being” feel rather than allowing the story its breathing space. There’s a modest-sized but ample pit band directed by Lori Maxwell: capable players but not quite gelled as a group.

This is the first production in the new partnership. It runs through Feb. 24 at the Century Theatre is in the City Center in downtown Minneapolis.

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