Lighten Up the Joint

Paula Abdul, the Little Engine That Could, Rolls Into Manhattan With a Hollywood Musical

By "everything" she means, in addition to the sluts, pushers, lounge lizards, and officious adults who populate the film, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jesus, both of whom turn up in the final scene. The team researched the provenance of the movie and discovered complex motives behind its production—as much to protect the interests of the paper industry against hemp producers and maintain adult authority in a rebellious teen culture as to fulminate against pot. They've punched the politics up, driving them totally over the top with predictably raucous results. The show is cavalier about staying in period; Abdul has made a Soul Train line dance to be performed in a '30s soda fountain.

There are six production numbers in the show, which, Abdul says, "wasn't supposed to be a real musical." Many of the actors—the cast features Christian Campbell, Gregg Edelman, Michele Pawk, and nine other performers—have Broadway credentials, but were nervous about the movement. "I said, 'Trust the process. Somehow it will work.' I'm not the celebrity here; I'm working 13, 14 hours a day, rehearsing and meeting with the writers."

Fickman says Reefer Madness is the first show Nederlander has planted in an Off-Broadway house (the 498-seat Variety Arts Theatre, chosen because it was available for an open-ended run). It's been transformed since Los Angeles from an Equity waiver project (vulnerable to desertion when performers got more lucrative gigs) to a full Equity contract, requiring standard hours and regular breaks. "In L.A.," beefs Abdul, "we didn't have these Equity rules; I could work until we were comfortable. I want to hug the actors and tell them, 'It is what it is. We'll get through it.' " She may yet surprise the cast by turning them into dancers; a month before the first preview, they were already looking good.

Rush Rush: Abdul, at work with the New York cast of Reefer Madness
photo: Bryce Lankard
Rush Rush: Abdul, at work with the New York cast of Reefer Madness

Fickman kept his end of his bargain with Abdul; while preparing Reefer Madness for Manhattan, he's finishing, for MTV, the pilot of a new program called Skirts. Abdul will choreograph it in addition to playing the lead, "like the White Shadow"—a former prom queen and Dallas Cowgirl who returns to her old high school to be the dance squad coach. This will be no stretch for Abdul, who already runs dance and cheerleading camps.

At rehearsal, the abundant "reefer" is actually lengths of wrapped soda straw twisted to look like the real thing. Stoned dancers couldn't manage the intricate footwork Abdul is plotting, and stoned actors would lose the comic timing. The team hopes for Rocky Horror-style cult audiences. Could work.

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