Arts musical review

‘Reefer Madness’ makes you giggle for good reason

MIT Musical Theatre Guild presents ‘Reefer Madness,’ the raucous musical satirizing the fearmongering around marijuana

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The ensemble confronts Jimmy Harper (Michael Mandanas ‘22) and Mary Lane (Maia Campbell ‘22) in the title number of 'Reefer Madness.'

Reefer Madness
Book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney
Music composed by Dan Studney
La Sala de Puerto Rico
Feb. 1–2 and Feb. 7–9 at 8 p.m.
Feb. 3 and Feb. 9 at 2 p.m.

Reefer Madness, originally a 1936 propaganda film which argued that marijuana causes a descent into madness, became a cult classic because of the film’s unintentional humor in its overly melodramatic indictments of weed. Embracing this cult status, the musical, which originally premiered in 1998, doubles down on the outlandish plot with songs such as “Jimmy Takes a Hit/The Orgy” and “The Brownie Song.” Using a framing device of a lecturer narrating a morality tale, the musical tells an exaggerated story of marijuana corrupting youth into performing acts of nudity, violence, and murder. As presented by the MIT Musical Theatre Guild, this production of Reefer Madness earns a lot of laughs from the wacky plot and the efforts of the cast and design team.

Audience interaction is key to the storytelling of Reefer Madness. Having closer interactions with the characters personalizes the experience and creates a stronger connection with the themes of sensationalism. The actors break the fourth wall frequently, and there are even interactions with the orchestra, such as when the pianist and conductor (River Grace ’21) is forced off stage by certain characters. To hold this all together, the Lecturer (Quinn Brodsky ’22) is particularly adept at keeping the attention of the audience as she tailors her performance to the reactions of the audience. These interactions make MTG’s production of Reefer Madness a more personal, impactful, and interesting performance.

The music of this production is superb as well, even with difficulty from the constant changes in key and tempo. The ensemble’s ability to adapt to the different music greatly enhances the changing moods throughout the musical. In addition, the catchy and iconic four-note theme returns repeatedly in different forms, highlighting the changes and remaining memorable to the audience. The transitions between songs are incredibly smooth as the orchestra navigates the eclectic score varying in genre from swing to rock and roll. Among the singers, Cassidy Fialkiewicz ’22 is the standout performer, delivering powerful vocals as the conscience-stricken Mae. The lead actors Michael Mandanas ’22 and Maia Campbell ’22 also have their moments to shine near the middle of the musical, with “Little Mary Sunshine,” featuring Paul Gallagher G as the giggling Ralph, being one of the more memorable numbers.

On the other hand, the biggest challenge of the production is overcoming its sound issues. This issue can probably be attributed to the venue, La Sala de Puerto Rico, but the onstage band creates another layer of problems since the band often overpowers the vocals. With the band playing in one of the front corners of the stage, sound balance issues arise from the seating location and the movement of the actors, who often retreat deep into the back of the stage and become softer in volume. These sound balance issues are a detriment to the actors singing in the lower parts of their vocal range and to the lyrics, which require careful listening due to their cleverness and the satirical nature of the show.

Some of the more successful aspects of MTG’s production of Reefer Madness are its visual elements. In delivering the high energy of the show, the madcap choreography performed by the hardworking ensemble stands out as particularly impressive, such as in the dance number “Down at the Ol’ Five and Dime” featuring a great performance from Edward Nguyen ’19. The set, although static for the most part, seems more ambitious than ones in previous MTG productions on account of its substantial size and its allowances for clever staging. Finally, the lighting design and frequent visual gags of the show sufficiently convey the campy humor of the ridiculous plot of Reefer Madness.

MTG’s production of Reefer Madness makes fun of the alarmism around marijuana addiction, creating an interactive experience with the talented actors responding to the audience’s reactions. The characters and the ensemble work well together with the difficult and catchy music, the eye-catching choreography, and the functional and clever set to deliver an effective performance of this musical. For these reasons, Reefer Madness, as produced by MIT Musical Theatre Guild, succeeds as a bawdy satire of the original propaganda film while featuring great performances from familiar faces on campus.