From 'Reefer Madness' to 'Richard III,' now is the summer of theater content in Oak Park

Midsummer madness!

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By Doug Deuchler

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Circle Theatre's new production, Reefer Madness, is hilarious and engaging, with top-notch performances, lots of high-energy singing, well-executed dance numbers, innovative staging, and crisp direction by Matthew Gunneis. The large, lively cast goes all-out for maximum fun.

But let me say upfront that this rollicking show may not appeal to those with delicate sensibilities. Nothing is sacred. For starters, there's a smarmy Vegas lounge-singer Jesus, some partial nudity, abusive behavior toward women, simulated drug usage and comic relief sex. It's a non-stop riot, but it's definitely not The Sound of Music.

This lively, quirky musical is an outrageous send-up of a 1938 alarmist film that attempted to warn the public about the evils of marijuana. The melodramatic morality tale showed a pack of evil drug-pushers luring apple-cheeked teens into wild after-school parties with jazz music and free joints. With one visit to the reefer den, the kids become perverted, hopelessly addicted dope fiends. The over-acting and shoddy production values made the low-budget movie an uproarious, unintentional comedy hit by the early '70s. The cheesy public-domain film became one of the earliest cult classics on the midnight movie circuit.

But Reefer Madness, the musical, is not just for stoners and the pothead crowd. It's a wild and crazy romp that feels like the spawn of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors. It's got that same sense of absurd, cartoonish fun.

The book and lyrics are by Kevin Murphy and the music is by Dan Studney. The songs — from solos and duets to full-cast production numbers — are mostly in the retro vein, from swing-era jitterbug to patriotic tributes.

Two squeaky-clean teens, in the throes of puppy love, turn into hollow-eyed homicidal zombies. The accomplished comic performances, with Ryan Stajmiger as naïve, straight-laced Jimmy Harper and Landree Fleming as bubble-headed, wide-eyed girl-next-door Mary Lane, make these virginal sweethearts both outrageously funny and endearing.

Stajmiger is in the midst of the action in virtually every scene, yet he never flags in terms of energy or appeal. Jimmy's life spins out of control: after one puff of the demon weed he turns into a giggling sex addict.

Jason Grimm is hilarious as the stern, authoritarian lecturer who opens the show standing at a podium warning the audience about the "unspeakable scourge." Grimm also plays a number of other roles, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a hairy goat man. My favorite sight gag is when FDR "dances" in his wheelchair by having chorus members move his legs to the music.

The lyrics of the title song warn that marijuana usage is "creeping like a communist, it's knocking at our doors/ Turning all our children into hooligans and whores."

Eric Lindahl is a dapper villain, the suave ringleader who seduces local kids into his den of iniquity. He also doubles as Jesus, belting out ballads that go unheeded by our hemp-hooked hero.

Mae, the hopelessly dope-dependent house madam, is played by Liz Bollar. Ralph, a maniacal pothead drop-out, a former frat boy now living in the depths of depravity, is Tommy Bullington. Elissa Newcorn plays Sally the Reefer Slut.

The tireless eight-member chorus is so terrific and versatile, they all deserve to be named: Bobby Arnold, Julia Beck, Kyle Kuhlman, Melody Latham, Joshua A. Peterson, Gina Sparacino, Neil Stratman, and Stephanie Wohar. The latter, in showgirl headdress, gets lots of laughs as she periodically strolls across the stage with huge placards bearing anti-marijuana warnings, such as "Reefer Usage Causes The Munchies."

John Nasca's sensational costumes heighten the fun and camp appeal. They're dazzling. The complex dancing is perfectly choreographed by Brigitte Ditmars.

Whimsical puppets are the brainchildren of Brian Powers. Musical director Jon Landvick and his musicians — Bob Potsic, Brenty Moore, David Orlicz, and Lindsay Williams — are unseen but quite dynamic. Gary C. Echelmeyer's lighting adds greatly to the mood and fun.

If you're a frequent flyer at Circle Theatre, you'll immediately notice there are lots of new faces in this exciting production.

Some of the dialogue is lifted verbatim from the 1938 movie, but the musical goes way beyond its preachy old film source, adding episodes of dismemberment and comic cannibalism in increasingly wild hallucinatory sequences — such as a dancing chorus of flesh-eating zombies right out of Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

This musical is not a pro-hemp show that glorifies drug usage. It's more a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the absurd ways anti-marijuana propaganda once used fear and paranoia to scare American youth to stay on an upright path.

Yes, much of the story is predictable, the plot sags a bit in the middle, and the songs are often less than memorable. But this production has so much energy and contagious fun that it sweeps you away.

My only gripe is that at times the words of the musical numbers seemed garbled. I know I have antique ears but I think the sound system was not helping any. The clever lyrics were often blurry.

The wildly enthusiastic opening night audience gave the show an ovation. The next day this Circle Theatre production was Jeff-nominated.

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