Just last week, with our hockey franchise so close to the Stanley Cup, most of Nashville was hooked on Fang Fever. Well, this week there’s a new addiction in town and it’s Reefer Madness. No, Tennessee State laws haven’t approved widespread marijuana dispensaries. Even better…if you’re a theatre geek like me…ACT1 and director Jason Lewis have assembled a great cast for the musical Reefer Madness, based on a 1936 propaganda film, and it’s all the buzz. Featuring book and lyrics by Kevin Murphy (Emmy nominated Desperate Housewives writer) the show, onstage at Darkhorse Theatre (4610 Charlotte Pike, Nashville, TN 37209) through Saturday, June 24, encourages audiences to inhale the laughs.
Earlier this week, I had a chance to chat with Jason as well as members of his cast for my latest Rapid Fire 20 Q.
Rapid Fire with ACT1’s Reefer Madness director, Jason Lewis
JONATHAN PINKERTON: Last year you helmed Circle Players’ Jesus Christ Superstar and now you’re directing Act1’s Reefer Madness which features, among other drug-addled scenes, a Vegas-style Jesus-centric musical number. Did you pitch the show to ACT1, a group that doesn’t traditionally mount musicals, or did they approach you?
JASON LEWIS: I had approached a few other companies in town about mounting a Reefer Madness production, but the conversations didn’t go any further than “Hmmm…Maybe.” ACT1 embraced the idea whole-heartedly, as they are not afraid to tackle material other companies might shy away from. ACT1 also doesn’t traditionally do musicals but I feel like Reefer only works in a raw intimate space like Darkhorse and I am grateful for the opportunity. We had to make adjustments but it all worked out in the end. At least that’s the feedback I’m getting from our crowds!
JP: As I mentioned in my intro to our conversation, for those who may not be familiar, the musical is based on a 1936 church-funded film that warned movie-goers of the evils of marijuana. When did you first discover it?…the original film…not the herb?
JASON LEWIS: My college roommate Laura Beth Wells of Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark gave me a VHS copy of the original film on my 21st birthday and I just remember laughing hysterically even though I had, at that time, never experienced the subject matter at hand. Years later when I became a medical marijuana advocate I realized how much of the American failed drug policy can be traced back to this propaganda film.
JP: You’ve enlisted the aide of musical director Rollie Mains. This isn’t your first time to work together. Previously you two worked together when he was musical director of Circle’s 2015 production of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, in which you played William Barfee. How has it been to work with him from a director’s standpoint?
JASON LEWIS: This is actually the fourth production I’ve worked on with Rollie. He was my musical director for Street Theatre’s 2010 production of Hairspray, Circle’s Spelling Bee and again with Street Theatre for their Batboy revival. It’s always a pleasure to be trained by someone who makes you be a better performer and I knew that he would elevate my cast beyond community theater standards. I always tell my casts even if we’re doing community theater that I don’t treat them as ‘community theater performers’ and I don’t expect those kind of performances in exchange. Rollie is the same way, so it was a perfect fit.
JP: Speaking of Spelling Bee, you’ve cast your former fellow-speller Nikki Berra as Sally in Reefer Madness. How much fun has it been to director her as the ‘reefer slut’?
JASON LEWIS: We were also cast-mates in Batboy, although I don’t think we really had any onstage interaction together! Nikki is an absolute joy to work with both onstage and as a director. She loses herself in a character the same way that I do and she’s not afraid to take risks. She never turns down direction. She is a fearless performer. During Spelling Bee, we joked about someday doing Reefer Madness and I’m beyond ecstatic that the stars aligned for us to work together again.
JP: With a campy show that pokes fun at the original propaganda film’s ‘right is right and wrong is wrong’ mentality, were you given any restrictions from the theatre company as to just how far you could go with the sheer debauchery of the play?
JASON LEWIS: Absolutely not, the board knows that I am the same kind of in-your-face persona professionally as I am personally. I don’t hold back in my Loretta Jenkins videos and I made it clear I would approach Reefer with the same reckless abandon. People expect me to deliver something that isn’t watered down. One member of the company did point out that there were alternate song lyrics and lines to be used and asked if I considering that, to which I replied with an appropriate guffaw.
Rapid Fire with Cameron Gilliam, Jimmy Harper in ACT1’s Reefer Madness
JP: Alright, you and I have become friends over the past few years and when I heard you were cast in this show, I even told you it didn’t seem like your kind of thing. How much fun are you having playing against your boy-next-door type?
CAMERON GILLIAM: Jimmy Harper has been one of, if not the most challenging role I’ve played in my career. From adorably naive nerd to strung-out sex-fiend to galvanized murderer to love struck romantic to death row pauper to ardent revolutionist, the ground this kid covers is astonishing. What’s more, it’s a farce, so every emotion and action is exceedingly elevated. Jimmy has taught me what level of commitment it takes to pull a role like this off. It’s wild how precise one must be in action and intention to execute an unbelievable character in a believable manner so that it resonates with the audience, be it in an austere fashion.
JP: You’re an accomplished dancer yourself, how has it been to bring choreographer Stephanie Jones-Benton’s vision to life?
CAMERON GILLIAM: Pertinent to the plot, Jimmy can’t dance. I get to let my sterile white vibes fly. In the final number though, Jimmy brings out a step or two. Stephanie easily captured the campy revolutionary march quite succinctly in movement and intention.
JP: In the original stage version as well as the more recent 2005 Showtime movie musical adaptation, star Christian Campbell stripped down to a fig leaf during the drug-induced orgy hallucination. How much skin are Nashville audiences seeing in your portrayal of Jimmy?
CAMERON GILLIAM: Nude spanks and a marijuana leaf with an oh-so-classy and period-appropriate mic belt to boot.
JP: The original 1936 Reefer Madness film presented the basic message that marijuana will lead kids down the wrong path. If I know you, I know you’ve found a redeeming message behind this parody as well?
CAMERON GILLIAM: You do know me. Though campy and farcical, the last lines of the show sum up the point the authors are driving home: “When danger’s near exploit their fear. The end will justify the means.” Satirically and sarcastically warning the public to think twice when authorities seek to use fear to instigate change or sway opinion. Quite appropriate for our politically charged climate I daresay.
As for Jimmy’s story, his pretenses of a perfectly tame world are shattered when he encounters manipulation and greed, the real culprits of society. Though torn and tattered, he becomes a deepened and relatable human because of his suffering and his encounters with the darker parts of the world. To me, his arc upholds a truth Plato and I hold dear: ignorance may be bliss, but the examined life is the only one worth living.
JP: I’m about to chat with your co-star Maggie Wood. How has it been sharing the stage with her?
CAMERON GILLIAM: Maggie is a peach and a half. It was her participation in this musical along with Andy Riggs and Morgan Lamberth that originally swayed my decision to participate. She is one of the easiest and most pleasant people to create with and is as smart as she is dedicated. It is a privilege and joy to share the stage with her.
Rapid Fire with Maggie Wood, Mary Lane in ACT1’s Reefer Madness
JP: I just spoke with Cameron and asked him about sharing the stage with you, so I’ll start our conversation by asking you…what’s Cameron like as a scene partner?
MAGGIE WOOD: I’ve absolutely loved working beside Cameron. He is so passionate about theatre and it was shown during every rehearsal. He has so much talent oozing out of him; it becomes contagious. It has been so easy working with him; every time we would work on a scene, if either of us suggested anything the other would be thinking the same thing. He is also the biggest goofball and made the rehearsal process that much more enjoyable for everyone along the way.
JP: You play the good girl of the piece, Mary Lane. Much like the character Sandy in Grease, who had her Bad Sandy moment, your Mary Lane gets to be a bit wild thanks to an unexpected toke of Mary Jane. How fun is that scene to play?
MAGGIE WOOD: It is honestly one of my favorite scenes to do during the show. The process it takes for Mary Lane to let out her inner urges are very subtle at first so it’s always fun to see if the audience will catch on to what she really wants before she really lets it out.
JP: Leslie Berra is the show’s costume designer, creating everything from late-30s strait-laced teens, to wanton women and even the devil. Do you have a favorite look in the show, yours, or someone else’s?
MAGGIE WOOD: I would have to say that Ben Gregory’s goat costume or the many women costumes that Andy Riggs has to quick change into would be my favorites in the cast. My personal favorite of my own would be my first pink dress. I feel like a little girl again in it.
JP: How are you most like Mary Lane?
MAGGIE WOOD: I see myself in Mary is in her determination through the whole story. Whenever she sets her mind to something she has to have it or see it come through in the best way possible and I would say I am very much like that in my own life. She has a lot of passion for the people she loves and she doesn’t give up. The people I love in my life are the most important thing to me and I believe Mary and I share that similarity.
JP: While Lonely Pew is riddled with innuendo, Little Mary Sunshine is flat out raunchy. How do you guys keep a straight face during the latter?
MAGGIE WOOD: At first it was hard not to crack when we showed the rest of the cast our scene. The more and more we went through the show the easier it was to imagine myself as Mary Lane would see it. It helps a lot more now that our cast is so close. It seems to flow better when you become comfortable with an amazing group of actors.
Rapid Fire with LaDarra Jackel, Mae in ACT1’s Reefer Madness
JP: Tell me a little about Mae?
LADARRA JACKEL: Mae is complicated. She is really the saddest character in this show. She is at a crossroads in her life and recognizes she needs to make a change. The problem is the confidence in her self and her dependence on “The Stuff”.
JP: She’s the Mistress of the Reefer Den…before joining the cast, had you ever heard of a ‘reefer den’ before?
LADARRA JACKEL: I’m sure places like that exist. I personally have never been to or heard about one before. I’m from a really small town in the Bible Belt so if one does exist it would be a well kept secret.
JP: In preparation of interviewing you and your cast mates, I re-watched both the original 1936 film and the 2005 musical movie. I love Ana Gasteyer as Mae. If you had to peg your inspiration for your Mae, where did she come from?
LADARRA JACKEL: I really did love her work as Mae! Jason, Rollie, and I discussed Mae many times during rehearsals. The biggest fear was making it too serious of a moment when it’s meant to be funny as well. The hard part about this show is the fine line between campiness and what’s real. Even though she is meant to be over the top, many people can relate to her. I just wanted it to feel honest and show her truth in each moment.
JP: Among your co-stars are Ben Gregory as The Lecturer who has come to town to warn the parent of the evils of pot, Trey Palmer as Jack Stone, the good-looking pusher who reels in fresh meat for the reefer den, and Andy Riggs, as Ralph, a college-drop-out who’s so far gone that he basically communicates with maniacal laughter. Let’s play a little word association for these three in the roles they’re playing…Ben? Trey? Andy?
LADARRA JACKEL: Oh fun! Ben-Goat Man!…Trey-Elvis Hips!…Andy-Committed!
JP: Mae’s big number, The Stuff (and its Act 2 Reprise) reveal that she, unlike the rest of the inhabitants of the reefer den, has regrets. Why do you think she can’t escape Jack, or the stuff’s hold?
LADARRA JACKEL: Change is scary, especially when you have nowhere else to go or a plan for the future. It’s also very hard to leave the situation you thought you wanted for yourself. At one point in her life Mae probably thought this is exactly what she wanted…lingerie, the stuff, orgies, etc. Slowly, over time, things started to change and it became a comfort zone, even though she was unhappy with everything surrounding her. This is why she became addicted to the feeling the stuff gave her. She felt numb and everything else melted away. She no longer had to think about everything bothering her about the situation.
Wrapping up ACT1’s current 2016/2017 season, Reefer Madness continues its run with shows through Saturday, June 24. Evening performances Thursdays-Saturdays are at 7:30 p.m. The remaining Sunday matinee, June 18, is 2:30 p.m. Click Here for tickets. Be sure and like Act1 on Facebook to keep up with all the latest from one of Nashville’s most daring theatre companies.
If you’ve enjoyed this latest installment of my recurring interview feature, Rapid Fire 20, Click Here to check out previous conversations. Be sure and subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler.