May 8, 2004

Heaven with chorus girls? Call it Reefer Madness

By Lynne McNamara

As I pull in to a parking spot next to a warehouse tucked behind a floral wholesaler on jesusMarine Way in Burnaby, I see the tents. Loads of folks draped in muslin robes billowing in the spring breeze as they snack and chat around a catering truck. A Bedouin camp, perhaps?

Then, tiptoeing into the darkened warehouse, stepping over cables and squeezing past flats, suddenly, I'm in heaven.

In this case, heaven is a 1930s nightclub where Busby Berkeley is alive and well. On a tall plexiglass staircase, lit from beneath, a dozen leggy chorus girls, their ample bosoms stuffed into silver beaded bras, drape over a topless long-haired goateed dude who looks a lot like Jesus, in his gilded gold loincloth and cowboy boots topped off with a crown of thorns.

This is no Mel Gibson movie. As he lies flat on his back on the steps, gold mike in hand, flanked by babes, choreographer Mary Ann Kellogg barks out instructions for the upcoming production number. "Arms out straight over Bob, cross your hands and flutter them! Heads back, smile up at the camera!"

The director calls, "Action!", and the band (including a harpist), dapper in pristine white tie and tails, starts up and the hand-fluttering begins. The chorus belts out, "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy!" and Jesus responds: "I'm the poster boy for Easter, don't let reefer kick your keister" as two Chippendale types ('gayngels') hoist him up over their heads and the long-craned camera dollies in for a closeup.

This is Showtime TV's highly stylized small-screen version of the stage musical Reefer Madness (inspired by the cult 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film) which began shooting in Vancouver last month and continues here until early June.

Starting out in 1999 in Los Angeles, the original stage show, described by Showtime president Robert Greenblatt as a cross between Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, developed a cult audience who soon learned every lyric and line of dialogue.

At 150 performances it was the longest-running show of its size in L.A., as well as one of the longest-running in L.A. history, winning many local theatre awards.

It moved to off-Broadway in 2001, where it was a hit with critics.

The stage version's creative team, including veteran director Andy Fickman, writer Kevin Murphy (book and lyrics) and Dan Studney (book and music), are in Vancouver with the production, all executive producing as well.

The cast includes Brit Alan Cumming as the finger-wagging anti-pot character, The Lecturer, American actor Steven Weber as Jack, the dope-pushing owner of The Reefer Den. Saturday Night Live's Ana Gasteyer is Mae, hostess of The Reefer Den. Toronto's Neve Campbell (Party of Five) has a cameo role as Miss Poppy, the singing, dancing proprietor of the local five-and-dime teen hangout.

Kristen Bell and Christian Campbell (Neve's brother) are reprising their roles from the New York show as the hilarious star-crossed young lovers and John Kassir and Robert Torti reprise their roles from both stage shows -- Kassir as Ralph, a psychotic ex-college student who turns into a reefer-fuelled cannibal zombie, and Torti as Jesus Christ superstar.

Murphy and Studney met at Drew University in Madison, N.J., where they began co-writing musicals.

From the start they hoped their musical about the demon weed would end up on screen.

"A movie was always in the back of our heads, it's a dream come true. It started as a movie, will end as a movie, full circle," they whisper between takes.

After the New York show closed, the duo wrote a screenplay adaptation to try to sell it as a film. They reunited the original L.A. cast and the original pit band, and staged a concert reading of the screenplay for an audience of invited distributors, studio heads and other bigwigs.

One of the people who attended -- Greenblatt -- was on the second day of his new job as president of the network.

"He'd seen the L.A. show, and he was sufficiently excited to have us come in for a meeting the following week," says Studney. "After a couple of months of negotiating he greenlighted us."

During budgeting for the show, it was decided that it made financial sense to come to Vancouver with the production, since Showtime has local infrastructure (sets and production offices) with their drama, The L Word, already based here.

And everyone seems very happy with the decision.

"There's a lot of talent here - on both sides of the camera. It's been wonderful because I don't know that we could have gotten a crew as excited and devoted. We have not a weak link on this crew," says Studney, "I have never been on a happier set in my life."

Director Fickman, who worked on both stage shows, is at the helm of Reefer Madness. He admits that directing for camera isn't that different from directing for stage.

"I think my approach has been the same -- I like to think that I direct with a real visual style -- which helps cover my total lack of substance as a director," he jokes. "I think this is just about having all the toys that I think the script always sort of called for. What's really nice about the stage is you're able to put things in people's imagination and what's nice about doing it here is we can really take it one step beyond and really show things that I think have always been in my mind since the first day I read the script. Doing the film is a great opportunity to excise out all the demons -- I've been carrying these photos around in my head for so long that now I'm like, 'Oh now I can see it!'"

There's a little bit of 'pinch me' going on, he says, and he's thrilled with the local talent.

"To be honest, we didn't know what we were going to find, but Vancouver has a wonderfully eclectic mix of dancers -- we saw about 400. We were looking for classic showgirl dancers, who could be in multiple numbers."

;And around the catering truck, the robed folks have been passing around a joke: "We'll start out with one loaf, one fish, one jug of water and by the time Bob is through, there'll be enough for cast and crew!"



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