Monday, Nov. 7, 2011

Reefer Madness: Musical Comedy Way, Way, Way Over The Top

Carte Blanche Delivers A High-Grade Product

By Russ Bickerstaff
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More satisfying than a whole box of Jeez-Its™, Carte Blanche’s production of Reefer Madness! The Musical is easily the single most enjoyable musical comedy this season. A charmingly well-balanced cast takes a show without much complexity to it and manages to keep it obscenely fun from beginning to end. This is a slick, sexy, stylish production.

I enjoyed this show quite a bit more than I’d expected to. Pot humor just isn’t that funny to me . . . and that’s pretty much what I was expecting here—Pot Humor: the musical. Actually, though there is quite a bit of that in here, it plays like a solidly respectable social satire that doubles as one of the more bizarre musicals that I think I’ve ever seen.

Director Jimmy Dragolovich and company have packed so many elements into this thing that individual elements bleed out into the whole surrealistic tableau of it all only to resurface later-on for no apparent reason. The day after I saw the show, I found myself thinking, “Did Michael Traynor really pull an old-fashioned telephone handset out of his pants onstage?” The answer: Yes-Michael Traynor really did open his fly and pull an old-fashioned telephone handset out of his pants to use as a prop. Did Jesus really walk out onstage munching on a box of Jeez-Its™? Yes. It’s the kind of show where these kind of details can get lost. And it’s really, really fun.

It’s a bizarre, dreamlike fugue of a musical—the type of a show that’s a lot more difficult to stage than one might think. It’s all perfectly well and good to be get a group of people together to be high-voltage weird for the better part of two hours onstage, but to do it with enough modulation and articulation that it doesn’t become at all tiresome and remains enjoyable throughout is a real challenge. It’s a challenge Carte Blanche has managed considerably well here.

Based on the 1936 anti-drug film of the same name, the musical stars Chris Jones and Karrisa Lade as Jimmy and Mary: a sweet image of disgustingly wholesome young lovers in the 1930’s. Jimmy’s nervous about an upcoming dance. (He can’t dance.) A dealer (played by Derek Woerpel) gives him something to cool his nerves and he gets hooked on a comically nightmarish rendering of the worst kind of junk imaginable.

The dealer runs a den of iniquity featuring a clever parody of the traditional mother figure (Samantha Paige) and a couple of smartly rendered comic junkie archetypes (Samantha Paige and Clayton Hamburg.)

At the helm of all of it, there’s slickly suave Michael Traynor as the lecturer presenting the program. A few in the cast are playing comic amplifications of characters they’ve played with Carte Blanche before. Traynor is sharply funny in a charmingly twisted mutation of the emcee he played in Cabaret. As a strung-out junky, we see Clayton Hamburg go from wholesome youth to drug fiend over the course of the curtain speech. From there it’s the more aggressive, animalistic side of his Stanley Kowalski from Streetcar on speed.  Emily Craig pleasantly echoes through a few other minor roles she’s had with a fun-loving girl who seems almost completely oblivious to her baby.  

It’s hugely satisfying to see Samantha Paige playing way over-the-top melodramatic exaggeration as a woman who can’t leave her abusive boyfriend because she gives him the stuff. She’s the voice of reason here in comically exaggerated moments and it’s a lot of fun to watch . . . she also did the choreography on the show. Paige has worked as choreographer on Carte Blanche’s intimate stage for long enough to be intimately aware of what works and what doesn’t work in such a small space. It fills the space perfectly with occasionally moments of stunningly good execution.  

The doomed romance in the center of it all features Chris Jones in a well-poised slow-motion version of the wholesome-to-haunted transformation that Hamburg does in the curtain speech. The character's initial drag on a joint is accompanied, if memory serves, by oboe and a sexy song and dance number. The slower metabolism of the change beyond that first drag gives Jones a chance for a lot more to work with comically. That Jones managed to find subtlety in the performance at all is kind of impressive, that he was able to execute it as well as he did serves to anchor in his end of the heart of the production quite well.

This is the second time I can remember seeing Karrissa Lade onstage…most recently having appeared in Theatrical Tendencies’ production of The Little Dog Laughed. The musical requires her to be more or less completely virginal and pure throughout the show and she carries it really, really well. One of the more subtly clever bits of comedy in the show has Lade in a church pew in a song musically lamenting the fact that her boyfriend is never around anymore. Church just isn’t the same. Even the wafers don’t transubstantiate. (As I recall, that was and end rhyme. Weird, I don’t remember what they’d managed to rhyme with transubstantiate…) It’s a touching performance by Lade who comes across with substantially funny innocence. 

The core cast is backed-up by a supporting cast of five "reefer zombies" who also appear as back-up dancers. In a fun bit of detail, Mica Chenault, plays sort of a boxing round card girl . . . moving across the stage with dour warnings of what marijuana can do . . . it’s kind of a stupid gag, but Chenault makes it fun with those sad, judgmental, exaggerated facial expressions. It would be nice to see what she might be able to do with a more prominent role in something.

The rest of the details are, as I say, numerous and enjoyable. There’s a lot to look at here—way too much going on to take-in on a single performance. As it turns out Andrew Parchman is, in addition to being a really good actor, a solidly respectable illustrator. The set mirrors the black and white of the original film with black and white foam props and furniture that are cleverly embellished with line work by Parchman. Look closely and you’ll see that the couch is smiling. The white foam set bits maintain a fun design element that adds to the show quite well.

Carte Blanche Studiosproduction of Reefer Madness runs through November 20th. For ticket reservations, call 262-716-4689.

 

 

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