A cross between Rocky Horror Show and Debbie Does Dallas, The Musical, the John Water-esque comedy Reefer Madness is currently playing the PAL Theatre in Vancouver with an ensemble so full of energy that I was exhausted by the end of the evening. I also slept like a baby knowing that Vancouver’s next generation of actors are a very talented lot if this group of primarily Capilano University students and graduates is any indication.
A spoof of the 1936 exploitation film of the same name (aka Tell Your Children), this musical stage version uses enough camp to put most local drag queens to shame in telling its story about the “evils of marihuana” (sic) and how it leads directly to murder, suicide, rape and even so far as to sell your baby for that next fix of “Mary Jane”.
Told via a high school assembly, the Lecturer (Sean Parsons) introduces his student thespians to reinact the “true story” of the consequences in smoking marihuana right here in our own town. Jimmy (Michael Fenske) and Mary Jane (Jen Doan) are straight-laced high school sweethearts whose idea of taking a risk, up until this point, is trying one of the newer dances at the local five-and-dime. Falling in with a bad crowd led by Jack (Mike Kovac) and Mae (Erin Palm), Jimmy soon gets caught up in a world where his only desire is his next high. Along his road to the bottom, Jimmy hooks up with chanteuse Sally (Britt MacLeod), College slacker Ralph (Maddison Popov) and all manner of drug-addled misfits.
When I read the program that talked about the cast having rehearsed the show “on Brianna’s back deck” I must admit to having my doubts before the first curtain. Fortunately those doubts were short-lived as Directors Maddison Popov and Brianna Wiens led their cast to very solid performances from Fenske and Doan’s spot-on naivety and golly-gee attitudes to Palm’s superb turn as the much battered reefer den hostess-with-a-heart-of-gold to Mike Kovac’s show-stopping Jesus. (I even found myself secretly thinking I wanted to be Brianna’s neighbour!).
Unfortunately, while Popov and Wiens succeed with their actors they did make a mistake in placing the actors on risers rather than the audience. With so much happening downstage it was virtually impossible to see everything and we are convinced that had we been able to see the entire show we would have walked away even more entertained than we were.
Choreographer Rachel Paish pushes her actors here to the limit with good results as well and given the small performance space she definitely had her work cut out for her (btw, just how big was Brianna’s deck?). While some of the male ensemble was a little weaker in the dance, again, the energy and enthusiasm from the cast more than made up for it with some very fun and inventive numbers.
One of my biggest pet peeves is always about sound. The way I look at it, if you’re going to do shows like this you really need to ensure the sound is right utilizing microphones or at very least ensure that the band/orchestra doesn’t overpower the actors and the actors have big enough voices to be heard in the back rows. Fortunately, this was not a problem last night and, while still not perfect, we could hear most everything from our mid-house seats. This, of course, is due in no small part to the great four piece band who make easy work of the various musical styles that composer Dan Studney utilizes throughout the show.
Liz Dubney’s costumes were fun and oh so very, very sexy and as a first year costuming student you just know she is destined for greatness. Nathan Kelly’s lighting was at times simply wonderful with the use of full colour washes to emphasize certain scenes including the end of the glorious “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy” with the angelic golden hues and the bright red he used during the hit-and-run scene.
Finally, special kudos to Placard Girl (Jacqueline Breakwell) who reminded me of the film extra that keeps looking at the camera (but in ar really good way).
As they said last night before the show started, light up and enjoy. We sure did (enjoy that is)!
But hurry, like any good high Reefer Madness is only around for a short time. It plays now through June 21st and then again July 2-4 at the PAL Theatre (581 Cardero Street). Tickets are available through Tickets Tonight.
A Special Note to the Producers: while we can certainly appreciate that production photos are always a good thing these should not be taken during an actual performance night. That is what dress or tech rehearsals are for. It was very, very, very annoying to have the photographer snapping away throughout the performance. It was bad enough when he was at the back of the house but as he made his way further and further towards the stage it became more and more annoying. And of course, we can’t help but feel sorry for the young actress who tripped trying to avoid the photographer. Okay, ‘nough said. Lecture over…