Sunday, June 13, 2004

Reefer Madness (Beck Center)

‘REEFER MADNESS’ fails to totally light up Beck Center

From 1936 until well into the 1970s, a movie named ‘REEFER MADNESS’ was shown in health classes in many schools. Originally financed by a small church group it was intended to scare the living bejeebers out of every youth and parent who viewed it regarding the use of maijuana.

Soon after the film was shot it was purchased by the notorious exploitation film maestro Dwain Esper who took the liberty of putting in salacious insert shots and distributed it to movie houses. After a brief run, the film lay forgotten for several decades.

Enter Keith Stroup, founder of NORML (Nation Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws). In 1971, he bought a print of the movie for $297, cleaned it up and started showing it at pro-pot festivals. It was a gigantic hit. Today, the film is a cult phenomenon dwarfed only by ‘THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.’

In April, 1999 a musical theatre version opened. Written by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, the co-authors of ‘LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS,’ the theatrical version fleshes out the “story’ with music and dance. The show was an instant hit in LA where it opened and moved to Broadway to rave reviews in October of 2001.

As the play opens in 1936, THE LECTURER, a severe authority figure, informs the audience of the new drug menace, "Marijuana," which threatens the American way of life! His warnings are reinforced by the placard girl who throughout the play holds up large signs that clearly state the moral of what we've just seen, eg., “destroys will power,” “incites immorality,” and “causes insanity.” From his podium, The Lecturer warns that action must be taken immediately, before “the Good Ol' U.S.A. succumbs to the Demon Weed!” We then see the “true” story of two pure youths whose lives are ruined by the drug.

Critics on both coasts loved the productions. The Beck production is more to be liked than loved. The staging though acceptable, never reaches the fevered-pitch necessary to make the material so ludicrous that it becomes hysterically funny.

Most of the cast is good, if not exceptional. On the outstanding level is Matthew Wright, who was superb in Beck’s ‘FIX’ and again proves what a super talent he is. The Lecturer is a sweat-it out, change-into-lots-of-costumes and be-many-characters part, that demands a lot. Wright pulls it off with ease and polish. Betsy Kahl, a young Renee Zellweiger look-alike, is adorable as the innocent turned innocently-evil Mary. Her rendition of “Lonely Pew” is wonderful.

Michael Hezog portrays the giggling pot-headed, zombied-out Ralph in a perfect over the-top way. Josh Armstrong displays exceptional dancing abilities and abandonment as a member of the male ensemble.

Aimee Collier’s “The Stuff” was well sung, though her characterization of the put-upon gun-moll Mae, came and went. Geeky Enji Reid tries hard as Jimmy, the good-boy gone-bad, but doesn’t have the stage savvy to pull off the role. Curtis Young makes a great Jesus, but doesn’t menace enough as Jack, the drug dealer.

Many of the spoken and sung lines are drowned out by the over-zealous band. The usually dependable musical director, Larry Goodpaster, needed to keep in mind that if the audience doesn’t hear the words, they don’t know what’s going on. This is not a rock concert, the band is playing back-up.

The highlight of the show was the creative and well-conceived choreography of Martin Cespedes. Cespedes has a way of gauging the talent level of his cast and building doable numbers for them to perform. Especially effective were “Down at the Ol’ Five and-Dime” and “The Orgy.”

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The musical ‘REEFER MADNESS,’ which will soon be made into a movie, is getting its local debut at The Beck Center. The production is fun in parts, but doesn’t let loose enough to make it the hysterically funny romp it could be. As a teenager sitting behind me said to a friend at the end of the show, “So what’s the big deal?” That’s not the response director Scott Spence wanted.