by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Players by the Sea’s main stage at 106 Sixth Street North in Jacksonville Beach will be alive with lots of laughter until August 11, with its zany production of the wild and wickedly funny musical “Reefer Madness.”
A bit of background. In 1936, a well-meaning church group produced “Tell Your Children,” a black and white propaganda film that blamed the use of marijuana for practically all current and future envisioned problems of teenagers. The film was poorly distributed by the religious group, but some savvy businessmen bought the rights and put it in movie theatres, and it subsequently became a cult favorite. A federal law enacted in 1937 made possession of the drug illegal throughout the country. In 1998, Dan Studney wrote the music and Kevin Murphy added a book and lyrics for a stage adaptation. “Reefer Madness, The Musical“was born in Los Angeles and later moved to off-Broadway.
Now Marijuana as the topic of a musical may seem an unlikely choice for a theatre in a city as conservative as Jacksonville, but this is pure satire and is, if anything, convincing in its own way that it is a drug not to get involved with. Anyway, we have seen several successful musicals in recent years with offbeat themes on the local stages: “Urinetown,” about having to pay to pee; “Little Shop of Horrors,” story of a flesh eating plant; and “The Rocky Horror Show,” with its transvestites.
Jacksonville native Samuel Fisher is fast establishing as a director of note; last year he directed the highly acclaimed “Next to Normal.” In “Reefer Madness,” Fisher has selected a cast that gives 100% spectacular performances from top to bottom and used cartoon strips as a frame of reference, apparent throughout in sets, costumes, makeup, gestures, and sound.
The show opens with an authoritarian lecturer warning us about marijuana and demonstrating his point with the story of Jimmy and Mary, two innocent teenage high school students who fall under the spell of the enticing cannabis.
Jimmy (Nicholas Sacks), wanting to learn to dance to please Mary( Jet Thomas), is lured into a marijuana den by the exploitative Jack Stone (Erik DeCicco) under the pretext of free dance lessons. Jack’s real purpose is for his moll, Mae (Aaron Marshall) who rules the den, to introduce the unsuspecting Jimmy to the devil weed. Mae is assisted by seductive bad girl Sally (Olivia Chernyshev) who sold her baby so she could get a fix. Another resident of the den is Ralph (Jerald Wheat), a college dropout, totally tied up in the drug scene.
In addition to Mae’s Reefer Den of sin and drugs, the settings include the local Five & Dime, and a church where Jesus (Erik DeCicco) shows up to encourage Jimmy to quit his addicted ways; later in the show he appears again to take credit for being right.
This is the final performance locally for Jacksonville native and Douglas Anderson graduate Nick Sacks, as he will be leaving for Carnegie Mellon University to pursue a musical theatre degree. He is hilarious as the naïve sixteen-year-old Jimmy who succumbs to the weed and the associated seductive temptations. Jet Thomas is terrific as Mary. She has an excellent voice and we are looking forward to seeing her perform at Jacksonville University where she is a senior in the theatre program.
We really consider this a breakout role for Chris Robertson who is brilliant as the Lecturer, and in several other smaller roles including, just to name a few, a soda jerk, a goat-man satyr, a minister, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Robertson is also a JU theatre student.
UNF senior Jerald Wheat, who is Ralph, continues to surprise the Dual Critics with his talents. We’ve seen him at PBTS in “Superior Doughnuts” and “The Wildest” and at Theater Jacksonville in “The Hot Mikado.” In Madness Jerald does some exceptional singing, and has established himself as “The Giggle” champion of local theatre (as an after effect of pot smoking).
Aaron Marshall (Mae) and Erik DeCicco (Jack, Jesus), have established themselves as the dynamic duo of Jacksonville musical theater, and can do it all, from belting out the songs with their fine voices, to comedy and even to playing keyboards themselves.
Chelsae Newberry as Placard Girl has a great visual presence, as she crosses the stage from time to time with a large sign summarizing the moral lessons of the play, with lines such as “Reefer makes you sell your babies” and “Reefer gives you a potty mouth.”
Much of the success of this show should also go to the ensemble, who are constantly on and off in various scenes in various costumes. The lovely ladies, Jessica Alexander, Amanda Morales, Anna Wheeler and Elyn Wolfe, go from being gorgeous eye candy in some scenes to zombies (now that must be some costume change!) The talented guys who can sing and dance include Jimmy Alexander, Shane Graham, Brian Healy, and Billy Speed.
Jacksonville University student, the multi-talented Alejandro Rodriguez who excels as a musical theatre performer, is a much in demand Choreographer, as you will see with his exciting dance creations in Madness.
Set Designer Brian Grant has really come into his own with the multiple locations, all done with comic flair and well executed by an excellent stage crew under Stage Manger Kat McLeod. The costume designs by the team of Dana Marie Ferger and Tiffany Jordan are very colorful, inventive and outstanding in every way. They often use vintage silhouettes with bright colors. For example, men appear in suits with wide lapels, and a dance scene finds the girls in full skirts in vivid pink, red, turquoise and yellow – with wigs to match.
In Madness you will observe something unique to community theatre in this area: Scenery Automation by Patrick Richart. As explained by us by Technical Director Jim Wiggins, a series of special motors donated to the theater have been mounted at the back of the set to raise and lower some of the scenery. This results in great visuals that you have to see to appreciate, another great reason to see this show.
The always outstanding Bryant Miano is the Musical Director assisted by Aaron Marshall handling the Vocal Direction. Colleen Doherty, a summer visitor to Jacksonville, contributed her lighting design talent to Players with “Once Upon This Island” and also for “Reefer Madness.” Thanks for your great work and good luck at your new position at Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach, Florida.
“Reefer Madness, the Musical” is a very wacky and hilarious show and done in comic book fashion by Director Sam Fisher. It is a fast-paced show with adult material, and one that is loaded with laugh after laugh to the beginning until the final curtain. It is certainly one of the funniest musicals we have ever seen. Don’t miss it.
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM