Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Reefer Madness
Scottsdale Community Players
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of Pump Boys and Dinettes and Little Shop of Horrors


Jack Walton and Hayden Skaggs
Photo by Laura Durant
There have been dozens of stage musicals adapted from movies, but I have to believe that Reefer Madness is the first and only show that is based on an exploitation propaganda film. The 1936 movie is a morality tale about the dangers of marijuana that was funded by a church organization and became a cult classic when it was rediscovered in the 1970s. This satirical stage musical adaptation, which premiered in 1998, plays up the humor of the horrors of smoking weed and the hilariousness of the film. Scottsdale Community Players' talented cast are all in their late teens or early 20s, which works well to depict the teenagers and young adult characters in the show, and with bright voices and good comic timing their production makes for two hours of hilarity, hijinks, and silly fun.

Set in 1936, the plot focuses on a nerdy "square" named Jimmy, who gets hooked on marijuana after an encounter with dope pusher Jack who lures Jimmy into his reefer den with the promise of swing dance lessons. While Jimmy's addiction threatens his relationship with his naïve high school sweetheart Mary Lane, Jack has to deal with issues of his own concerning Mae, who runs the den, and Sally, who is so addicted to the "leafy green assassin" she sells her baby to get more money for Mary Jane. Add in a visit from Jesus, hallucinatory experiences, and a lecturer who narrates the entire affair, and you end up with a morality tale on the horrors of smoking dope that's also a comically delicious musical satire.

Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney's book plays up on the hilarity of the film, and, with just a few small changes from the film plot, beautifully satirizes the lessons in the movie. Studney's biting, witty lyrics and Murphy's rich music create toe-tapping songs that play off the characters and situations.

With appropriately exaggerated performances that play up the comical dialogue, lyrics and situations, director Peter Bish has found exceptional leads and fun ensemble members who don't miss a beat. Jack Walton's transformation from nerdy do-gooder to down and out dope fiend is hilarious. His sweet, clear singing voice shines on Jack's many songs and his wide-eyed expressions are spot on as he throws himself into the character's energetic antics while also having to deal with the many obstacles Jack encounters once his addiction takes hold. Trevon Powell is delicious as the dead-serious, upstanding-citizen narrator who spews morals as he warns us about the evils of marijuana but, with a huge gleam in his eye, also humorously plays several other cameo parts as he sings, dances, and adds comic pops of hilarity to the production.

Cate Carlino drips sugar as the ultra-sweet Mary Lane, who is a wide-eyed innocent until she takes one toke of weed and has a hilarious Jekyll/Hyde experience. As Jack, Hayden Skaggs is appropriately smarmy and sharp, and Tawny Audi beautifully plays Mae as the washed-up woman who has come to realize that her best days are far behind her. Carlino, Skaggs and Audi all have lovely singing voices, with Audi's biting delivery of "The Stuff," as she spits out her lyrics, spot on.

In supporting roles, Ainsley Orozco and Max Mendoza are humorous as the baby-selling Sally and Ralph, the degenerate ex-college kid, respectively. Mendoza also plays Sally's baby with gleeful abandonment. Andru Moeller gets a high-flying solo and reprise as Jesus, which he relishes and delivers like a comical cross between Up with People and the Village People. Becca Bauer's voice soars on her solo as Mrs. Poppy, and Ava Siegel is a hoot as the placard girl who appears throughout with signs stating the side effects of marijuana, such as "Reefer turns you into a pathological liar."

Bish's direction ensures a fast pace while also achieving comically delicious performances from the entire cast. Choreographer Dale Nakagawa has crafted some sensationally sensuous and humorously rich steps that are danced well. Lorenzo Slavin's music direction delivers bright notes from the cast and the small onstage band. Bish and Chase Budden's set design is simple but effective, with just a few set pieces that move on and off to depict the various locations as well as some cartoon pieces that add to the humor in the musical. Stacey Walston's evocative lighting and the character-specific costumes by Lisa Christian and Kristin Stewart add to the heightened humor in the show. The only slight downside is Bish's sound design, which wasn't balanced at the performance I attended so the band and the ensemble members often drowned out the leads and made their lyrics unintelligible.

Reefer Madness is a cutting and hilarious musical comedy that pointedly mocks exploitation films and seminars that preached about the evils of marijuana. With a wonderful cast and clear direction, Scottsdale Community Players delivers an amusing and entertaining production of this smart political satire.

The Scottsdale Community Players production of Reefer Madness runs through August 1, 2021, at Greasepaint Youth Theatre, 7020 E. 2nd Street, Scottsdale AZ. For information and to purchase tickets call 480-949-7529 or visit www.greasepaint.org.

Directed by Peter Bish
Musical Director: Lorenzo Slavin
Choreographer: Dale Nakagawa
Set Designer: Peter Bish and Chase Budden
Lighting Designer: Stacey Walston
Costume Design: Lisa Christian & Kristin Stewart
Sound Designer: Peter Bish
Props Designer: Maureen Watson
Stage Manager: Rebecca Courtney

Cast:
Jimmy Harper: Jack Walton
Lecturer: Trevon Powell
Mary Lane: Cate Carlino
Jack Stone: Hayden Skaggs
Mae: Tawny Audi
Ralph: Max Mendoza
Sally: Ainsley Orozco
Jesus/ Ensemble: Andru Moeller
Mrs. Poppy/Ensemble: Becca Bauer
Placard Girl/Ensemble: Ava Siegel
Ensemble: Mirka Caceres, Anthony Enoch, McKenzie Jessen, Allie Rose


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