LA Times

Thursday, July 20, 2000

Stop Laughing --
This Is Serious

"Reefer Madness!" director Andy Fickman tries a darker show, with Alicia Witt in her stage debut

by Katleen Foley

Most productions in sub-100-seat theaters are Little Engines That Could--ambitious but straining vehicles that chug through a standard six-week run, struggling all the while to attract audiences, media coverage and a bit of simple recognition.

Considering the hundreds of productions that vie for attention in a typical theatrical season, it's no shock that many small shows slide back to the bottom of the hill. However, every once in a great while, a Little Engine transforms into a runaway train--a roaring, sleek conveyance that gathers momentum as it goes, with no signs of stopping.

Audiences clamored for tickets to board "Reefer Madness!," last season's sellout at the Hudson Theatre. In fact, the sheer velocity of Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney's "new 'hit' musical" (obvious pun intended) is carrying the show all the way to New York City, where it is scheduled to open this fall at a venue to be announced.

Loosely based on the 1936 scare film of the same name, "Reefer" revolves around the misfortunes of Jimmy, a fresh-faced young high school lad who falls victim to Jack, an evil marijuana peddler. One puff of the demon weed transforms Jimmy into a leering, sex-crazed maniac, bent solely on the pleasures of the flesh and his next "fix." Scenes of debauchery and mayhem follow fast apace as Jimmy and his depraved new associates smoke, slink--and, of course, sing--along the path to inevitable catastrophe.

The show's successful run was fueled in large part by the contributions of director Andy Fickman, whose over-the-top staging dovetailed perfectly with the camp sensibilities of the piece. A directorial tour de force, "Reefer" won Fickman considerable acclaim, including Ovation and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards for outstanding direction.

After his experience with "Reefer," it would have made perfect sense for Fickman to continue along the same wildly comic lines that worked so well before. However, those expecting a "Reefer" reprise should be advised: Fickman's latest directorial outing, "The Gift," an original musical with book by cousin collaborators Robbie Fox (book) and Steve Fox (music and lyrics), is a far cry from a comic romp. The show, which opened Saturday at the Tiffany, is far darker and more reflective, a daring departure for Fickman.

" 'Reefer' went at 90 miles an hour," says the 36-year-old Fickman, a burly bundle of compressed energy who works as a Hollywood development executive. "It was a Bugs Bunny cartoon on speed. 'The Gift' slows down and goes in a completely opposite direction. The songs are captivating, soulful and lingering. There's still plenty of comedy, but it's very heavy subject matter. I think, in its own way, it's equally as engaging as 'Reefer.' "

Indeed, some big industry names are banking on just that. The cast album for "The Gift" is already being recorded for Geffen Records. Craig Baumgarten, one of the show's producers, is former vice president of production at Paramount and a veteran Hollywood producer who has helped shepherd such projects as "American Gigolo" and "Sophie's Choice." And Alicia Witt, who was a regular on the long-running TV series "Cybill," is slated to make her theatrical debut in the play.

"The Gift" focuses on five former college fraternity brothers who reunite for a wedding, 15 years after graduation. Witt plays a call girl who "entertains" the men at a bachelor party, with unexpectedly fateful consequences.

"I've never done a play before, and I've certainly never done a musical," says Witt, who also stars in John Waters' "Cecil B. Demented," due out next month. "Andy has been so amazing, so much fun to work with. I feel I can trust him, I have a great deal of confidence in him. And it's a relief to be working with the guys in the cast, who are all such stage vets. If they're not nervous, I guess I won't be."

 The confidence Fickman inspires in cast and crew alike is evident from the number of "Reefer" alums who have signed on for "The Gift." Carry-overs from the "Reefer" cast include John Kassir, Harry S. Murphy, Larry Poindexter and Robert Torti. On the technical side, music director David Manning, costumer designer Dick Magnanti and sound designer Jon Massena have also followed Fickman from old show to new.

Torti, who won a Tony nomination for "Starlight Express," makes it clear that without Fickman he probably wouldn't have bothered with a small-stage show.

"So much small theater is just plain bad. When I attend a show at a 99-seat theater, I immediately look around for the nearest exit, just in case," says Torti, who played Jack in the original cast of "Reefer." "But with Andy, it's different. I trust him implicitly. Plus I think that both 'Reefer' and 'The Gift' rank with any Nederlander production on Broadway."

The kudos and theatrical awards amount to high praise for a small-town kid. Born in Roswell, N.M. ("The saucer crashed and I came out," he says), Fickman was raised in tiny Midland, Texas, by his geologist father and homemaker mother. His father, a fixture in community theater productions, passed on his passion for the stage to his youngest son.

Fickman was the resident exotic at his Texas fraternity house. Not only was he was Jewish but also a theater major. "I was elected president of my frat, the Sig Eps, this huge fraternity at Texas Tech University," Fickman recalls with a laugh. "All the brothers were Christians and jocks. They'd be listening to rock music, and they'd pop in my room and ask 'What are you listening to?' And I would say ' "City of Angels!" You should hear this! Hey, who stole my "Les Miz" tape?' Why they made me president, I'll never know."

Little did Fickman realize that, one day, he would be mining his fraternity experience for creative inspiration. "Ironically, 'The Gift' is a story about five best friends, college frat brothers," Fickman says. "The bonds that are formed, the highs and lows of fraternity life, I went through all that."

But Fickman's personal connection to the play runs deeper than that. "My father died very suddenly of a heart attack when I was 15," he says. "I was not prepared--I don't think anyone ever is.

"The message of the play is, 'Live today. You don't know what tomorrow will bring.' So I don't think it's any surprise that I sparked to that message, and with the life-and-death issues of the play.

"The show is really about choices. If you make a certain choice, you cross a line, whether that's a line in your business, your marriage or your relationships with your friends. And the chain of events your choice leads to unravels so quickly and goes out of control. Someone will say, 'I cheated on my taxes and now I'm in jail.' Or, 'I had an affair with my secretary and my wife left me.' It all starts with that initial crossing of the line. I'm interested in that defining moment. At least, that's what I'm trying to express here. This is not a three-walls kind of play. It's very different, very challenging."

So is Fickman's schedule. As father of 3-year-old Austin, Fickman shares parenting chores with his wife, Elissa, a former actress who is now president of Reel Talent Management. Then there's his day job as a vice president of development for Middle Fork Productions. Among other projects, Fickman is developing an MTV series with Paula Abdul, his friend and frequent collaborator. And whenever he has a spare minute away from "Gift" rehearsals, he continues to prep "Reefer" for its New York run.

It's all part of the evolving Fickman saga. Will "Reefer" prove bulletproof to the New York critics, so fond of sniping at past L.A. exports? More immediately, will "The Gift" attract even a modicum of the critical and popular attention lavished on its predecessor? "Gee, I sure hope so," Fickman says. "Otherwise, in my next career, I'll be asking, 'Do you want apple pie with that?' " *

F. Kathleen Foley is a regular theater reviewer for daily Calendar.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times


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