Hole in the Wall's REEFER MADNESS offers a contact high
Hole in the Wall in New Britain is pretty much the hippest community theatre group in Connecticut. Their collectivist approach to programming and producing means a far-ranging sense of repertory that refuses to be pinned down by a narrow artistic vision or the same-old-same-old community theatre fare. A twist on Shakespeare can be slapped up against a new musical followed by an edgy drama. This means you are always in for a surprise of some sort.
Full disclosure: HITW produced four of my one-act plays earlier this season under the omnibus title Jacques Lamarre Has Gone Too Far. See, I told you they are hip. With their season-closer Reefer Madness, Hole in the Wall makes a bid for the hipster crowd, the musical theatre crowd AND the stoner crowd that likely used to beat up the hipster and the musical theatre crowd.
The purpose of the 1936 film Reefer Madness, originally financed by a church group and titled Tell Your Children, was to warn teenagers away from the evils of the wanton weed. Using cheap melodrama, overacting and outrageously exaggerated symptoms of cannabis addiction, the film quickly and unintentionally segued from educational to exploitation. When the movie resurfaced in the 1970s, it became a cult sensation among pot-heads and camp film lovers alike.
The question bigger than a blunt rolled by Snoop Dogg is this: is an intentionally campy musical based on an unintentionally campy film going to be funny? The answer may vary based on the following questions. Have you seen the original film to know what the show is lampooning? Did you find the original film funny? Have you smoked a giant doobie before entering the theatre?
Although Hole in the Wall may have a small (bong) hit on its hands with Reefer Madness, I would hesitate to say that it is worth more than, say, the street value of several ounces of the good stuff. Musical creators Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney have stretched the 68-minute film to approximately two hours with intermission. This is a bit of a long time for what is essentially a one-joke show filled with two-dimensional characters. Sure, they manage to roll every conceivable marijuana joke into the joint, but even Cheech and Chong may not want to Bogart the entire musical.
Hole in the Wall does their best to make it work. Director Michael Daly keeps things moving along giddily throughout the evening. The cast is led by a terrific Matt Skwiot as the Narrator, an omniscient voice of reason that cuts through the haze of herbal smoke. As the innocent-turned-reefer addict Jimmy, Kevin Clark has fun with his insidious transformation. Unfortunately, despite having a microphone clearly taped to his head, half of his performance could not be heard from my seat in the third row.
As the dippy, wide-eyed Mary, Stephanie Layne shines. She understands that in order to make this show work, you have to overdo the already over-the-top film. This is also the case with James DeMarco's sneering, pimp-slapping drug dealer Jack. As the sassy drug moll Sally, Kate Brophy does a fine job with snappy timing. As the beaten drug mule Mae, Heather Spiegel Auden sings beautifully and nicely handles the only small dose of pathos contained in the script.
Devin Horner goes from the unenviable task of playing me in Jacques Lamarre Has Gone Too Far to playing a swinging, singing Jesus. Trust me, it's a stretch to go from one to the other. Matthew Benjamin Horowitz channels his inner Chris Kattan/Mango as a seriously disturbed slave to reefer. The ensemble has fun with the choreography by Rebecca Meakin.
The exceptionally attractive pit band performs the score nicely. This is not surprising as they are the only ones not sparking a spleef throughout the show. This production is recommended with minor reservations. See it before it goes up in smoke.