Ampersand Production’s “Reefer Madness: The Musical” is the theatrical equivalent of having the munchies.
Indiscriminate and wild in its appetites, the show’s eyes are bigger than its stomach.
For two hours, director Amanda Francis’ half-baked production trips, staggers and giggles its way through Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy’s musical parody of the 1936 cult film chronicling the dangers of the demon weed.
It holds together as long as it can on pure gumption until finally collapsing into a wasted wreck.
Like I said… the munchies.
Featuring a spunky cast of fresh new faces sprinkled with a few seasoned hands like Allee Peck, Bill Mader and Elyse McDaniel, the show’s youthful verve and presentational moxie come close to making it a rewarding experience. But it simply lacks the timing and polish necessary to make it a recommendable evening of theater.
That being said, there is a lot of young talent and heart on the boards of Mid-City Theatre. So if you can forgive problems with volume, sightlines, pacing and technical execution, you might have a few chuckles and meet some actors I suspect we will be seeing for some time in this city.
Telling the cautionary tale of young high school sweethearts Jimmy Harper (Tony Coco) and Mary Lane (Linsey Shubert), “Reefer Madness” requires lickety-split pacing to prevent the silliness of the situation from settling in on its viewers.
After all, it is framed like a PTA meeting, features comic numbers sung by abandoned babies, and turns on a drug dealer who fronts as a soda shop proprietor.
Hit-and-runs, electric chairs, and long halluncination sequences induced by the evil jazz cigarettes are all part of the wild landscape of a show that makes less and less sense the more you think about it.
Therefore, it has got to move. One moment to breathe, and the whole project unravels. And that is exactly what happens, because director Francis simply cannot handle the size of her show.
Transitions are a disaster. Even when scenery isn’t sticking in the wings, it takes too long for the next scene to establish and begin. It brings the show to a screeching halt, leaving viewers sitting in darkness and silence while crew and actors fumble for lights and places.
A director’s job is worrying about the next moment. If nothing else, the person in charge of production needs to make sure that everyone knows not only where they are going but also when they have to be there.
So when Nick Giardina’s confidently pompous Lecturer/Narrator is searching for his light or the lovely Skylend Roussell has to navigate bodies in the darkness to show the next placard sign, the suspicion begins to arise that their placement on the stage was a secondary thought for the director.
And when it isn’t biting off more than it can chew, “Reefer Madness” seems to be privy to a gag that the rest of the audience missed.
Jokes are telegraphed with no self-awareness, punchlines are held waiting for laughter that doesn’t arrive, and most unfortunately, the actors seem, on occasion, to be having a better time than the audience.
This is especially true with Mader who undermines his own wildly funny work as a raving addict by amping up the comic intensity until he has exhausted himself and his viewers.
After awhile, it becomes clear that no one was in the house during rehearsals telling him to calm down, tell the story, and give stage to the other actors.
And that’s a shame, because along with Mader, the ensemble in “Reefer Madness” demonstrate flashes of the show that could’ve been.
Both McDaniel and Peck, featured so effectively in the recent “Zanna, Don’t!”, fill their roles, as a wanton woman and house madam respectively, with the necessary manic energy.
And just like Coco and Shubert, Charles Regnard as a classic two-bit hood gives the indication that, when properly directed, he will be quite capable of bringing gravitas and menace to other endeavors.
The remainder of the cast possess beaming smiles, big enthusiasm, and a plucky can-do-attitude. You root for them right until the final number.
And hope they’ll do better next time.