Theater review: Reefer Madness

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The playbill comes at you in a loathsome dayglo green, and the Queen City Theatre Company’s new production of Reefer Madness skips merrily along in the same brash vulgar style, filled with bogus fears and unsubtle comedy delights. As it turns out, October isn’t merely ripe for ghouls and monsters. With elections around the corner, it’s also a fine season for mocking demagogues and fear mongers.

Taking us back to a 1936 high school auditorium deep in America’s heartland, Reefer Madness is a genre gumbo, wrapping gothic horror and social satire in a gleeful musical package. In Jimmy Fennimore Harper and Mary Lane, we get the familiar infatuated naïfs who have befriended us in such trashy classics as The Rocky Horror Show and Evil Dead. What’s surprising here are the iconic cameos by Uncle Sam, George Washington, Lady Liberty, and Jesus Christ. Bacchus is a welcome counterweight, and with Kristian Wedolowski sporting the horns (sandwiched around his stints as Jesus), we get a Uruguayan accent to boot.

Jonathan Van Caudill and Bettina Martin traveled a parallel path back in their college days when they were Officer Lockstock and Little Sally in an outstanding Urinetown at UNCC in 2008, so they’re ideally suited for Jimmy and Mary’s apprenticeship in drug depravity. On leave from his customary regimen of edgy, stressful drama such as Reservoir Dogs and Sunset Limited, Tom Ollis brings a special zealotry to his chores as our narrator host, morphing into a malt shop owner, a parson, a train conductor, a hapless old man, FDR, and even a mom when he isn’t merely sounding alarums or stoking paranoia. His singing, down at the malt shop in a couple of ensembles, isn’t half bad.

Robbie Jaeger and Brianna Smith are the cautionary examples of the indignities that befall all captives of cannabis. Smith draws the more showstopping solo, bewailing her addiction to “The Stuff,” but Jaeger gets to probe his inner derelict more deeply. After his gig as Juan Peròn in Evita, Steven Martin has evidently become Queen City’s go-to thug, portraying Jack Stone, the steely ruler of the drug den that ensnares our tender protagonists. Give the man a more reliable gun, please.

Of course, it takes more raunch than Wedolowski’s bestial Bacchus to decry the horrible horrors of reefer with sufficient hypocrisy. Alyson Lowe, the demon slut of last year’s Evil Dead, pulls similar duty here while partnering with Jaeger in devising the raucous choreography. Peeping in with slogans steeped in hysteria (inevitably prefixed with “Reefer makes you…”), Karen Christenson repeatedly sashays across the stage as Placard Girl, crowning the event with a boxing-match seediness.

Music and script by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney cleave unstintingly to the gospel of trashiness, with instantly toothsome titles such as “The Brownie Song” and “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy.” Director Glenn T. Griffin is an able apostle, ladling on dollops of portentous melodrama. He doesn’t make the mistake of neglecting to mic his performers as a recent production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ did, but he uses so much of the Duke Energy stage that folk in the balcony strain mightily to see it all. The four-piece band led by keyboardist Marty Gregory is tight yet unobtrusive, and the costumes by Eric Grace are the essence of campy cheesiness.

If you value your true-blue Republican sanity, stay away from this show! You have more than enough to be afraid of already.

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