Something is smoking down at the Joanne and Peter Kenny Theatre, and it’s King’s Players’ fearlessly fiery production of Kevin Murphy and Dan Studley’s Reefer Madness: The Musical. This raunchy musical comedy takes its inspiration from the 1936 cult film of the same name, detailing the moral ruin of a band of students victimized by the deadly effects of marijuana. The musical charts the personal corruption of the clean-cut Jimmy Harper (Robert Popoli) as he is whirled into a world of sex, violence, jazz, angels, guns, and more, pulling his beloved sweetheart Mary Jane — no, Lane (Taryn Wichenko) down with him. King’s Players tackles this undoubtedly risky production with admirable tact, handling the show’s explicit sexual content, violence, and adult humour with diplomacy. At the heart of this show lies a hilarious political commentary on the usage of recreational drugs which, although it may not appeal to all audiences, was fully entertaining and uncomfortable in the best of ways.
The musical opens strongly with a feisty introductory number led by Elena Reyes, who plays an unapologetically bold Lecturer. Her impeccable wit, snappy comedic timing, and killer vocals are a wonderful asset to the production. The show’s ensemble is strong, radiant, and vocally cohesive, matching the instrumental talents of the live pit band. Although the band at times drowns out important pieces of dialogue or lyrics, the ensemble’s vibrant blend of tightly rehearsed harmonies is impressive. Hat tips off to the show’s vocal director, Christine Rabey, who is surely behind this cohesion. The show’s staging struck me as particularly effective from its beginning, which is clearly due to the strong directorial talents of Shelby Price. Choreographers Natalie Chevalier and Kaylee Larose created numbers which had us in laughs, shock, and delightful confusion driven by the show’s absurdities.
Much of the production’s strength lies in its casting, which is also a testament to Price’s directorial vision. Robert Popoli, for instance, is a shiningly entertaining Jimmy Harper with soaring vocal talents and a beating heart. His beautiful chemistry with the equally as vocally stunning Taryn Wichenko fuelled their charming romantic scenes with the perfect amount of camp. Wichenko is an electric Mary Lane from start to finish. Dylan Rock is a deliciously sleazy Jack Stone, and Abigail Veenstra as Mae stunned with her gorgeous power-belt. Jack Phoenix and Julia Dmytryshyn give scene-stealing performances as Ralph Wiley and Sally, but the most spectacular entrance in the production goes to the domineering Thomas Krasey as Jesus Christ.
Let’s be BLUNT: Reefer Madness: The Musical is not for everyone. Audiences were generally well engaged, but were driven uncomfortable at times by subtle references to violence against women (that were self-aware and within the scope of the play’s satire) and to some of the sexualized content. That being said, the creative team’s ability to tackle subjects that were appropriately satirical back in the 1930s and enhance their political relevance today was admirable. To put on a production that is considered controversial in an educational environment was a risk, but one that ultimately paid off due to the strengths and talents of all involved.