The musical version of Reefer Madness provides plenty of high camp
Demonstrating diversity is one thing, but this is ridiculous. Dustin Czarny, the driving guru behind the Not Another Theater Company troupe, last performed the family-friendly Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods in association with the august publications Family Times and the Syracuse New Times. Yet Czarny’s current show, produced on his lonesome at the company’s home base, the Locker Room’s Fire and Ice banquet hall at 528 Hiawatha Blvd., offers a 180-degree turn from Into the Woods’ fractured fairy tales. Indeed, Reefer Madness: The Musical might share with the Sondheim hit the framework of a cautionary morality play, although Reefer’s message is deliberately clouded over with hazy hallucinations, crazed caricatures and pot-oriented perversities.
Much like the floorboards musical Little Shop of Horrors, the theatrical reincarnation of Reefer Madness also originated from a poverty-row motion picture. The 1936 film, sometimes titled Tell Your Children, was a low-budget indie effort that gleefully mined bucks from the exploitation circuit, all the better to circumvent the Production Code no-nos regarding on-screen drug usage, sex and violence that hamstrung the major studios. Scenes of straight-arrow kids succumbing to the wacky weed were mixed with a fingerwagging theme about the wages of sin, resulting in a serious movie brimming with unintentional laughs, although the drop-dead earnestness achieved by director Louis Gasnier made the hour-long running time feel like three hours.
This maverick feature would surely have dropped into public domain obscurity, until little-known (then, anyway) distributor New Line Cinema reissued the flick in the early 1970s as a midnight-only attraction aimed at a new generation of pothead hippies. The movie’s best-known actor was Dave O’Brien, who played stalwart cowpokes in a series of shoestring westerns for Monogram Pictures, but he’ll always be remembered in Reefer Madness as the high guy who utters the immortal line “Play faster!” as an ivories-tickling miss complies.
The inevitable stage version, with music by Dan Studney and lyrics by Kevin Murphy (who has TV credits including Desperate Housewives, Ed and Hellcats), was a hit during its Los Angeles run from 1998 to 2001. The show, alas, had the misfortune to open off- Broadway just days after the Sept. 11, 2001, nightmare, and it soon closed. A well-received movie adaptation, however, aired in 2005 on pay cable’s Showtime and even copped an Emmy Award for the roundelay song “Mary Jane/Mary Lane,” which was not in the original musical, but has been happily retained for Not Another Theater Company’s production.
So Czarny’s area premiere rates as something of a coup. It’s doubtful that college drama departments would touch it because of the gonzo emoting required to pull it off (students are supposed to learn from the likes of Moliere and Arthur Miller, don’t you know), while most community-theater groups lack the daring hipness factor to even think about scheduling a show jam-packed with joints afire.
The 1936 movie’s structure hasn’t changed much for the stage version, which likewise starts with a foaming-at-the-mouth lecturer (David Witanowski, on holiday from Wit’s End Players) warning the audience about the evils of narcotics, then introducing the audience to the apple-pie leading characters who must trudge down the alleys of addiction. (“No expense was spared in the making of this production,” heralds the lecturer, which is something of an inside gag given Czarny’s intentionally grubby set design.) Sure enough, we first meet the argyle-dressed James Fenimore “Jimmy” Harper (Bobby Hall) as he coos alongside blonde angel Mary Lane (Jesse Pardee) with inane patter regarding Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Jimmy inevitably winds up on the wrong side of the tracks, specifically the dope den run by Mae (Jodie Baum), who helps lure high school kids to try the gateway drug known as marijuana. The trap is initiated by Mae’s pusher Jack (played with a Super Fly-esque menace by Stephfond Brunson) in order to hook the teens for spliff-filled futures.
Reefer Madness: The Musical’s comedy, however, comes with its satire of staunch Republican values, as the pot abuse ironically results in all sorts of id and libido liberation. Hall’s Jimmy comes across as a refugee from Glee in the early scenes, yet when he goes a few tokes over the line he morphs into the bug-chewing Renfield character from Dracula. And Pardee’s Mary Lane undergoes a late-in-the-show transformation, becoming a sadomasochistic sex kitten with a whip. With a climax that brings back the Lecturer for more social taboos that must be addressed, such as communism and alternative lifestyles, it’s obvious to today’s Reefer Madness audiences that the Tea Party is just around the corner.
Still, it’s hard to tell where the off-Broadway show ends and Czarny’s embellishments begin. For one thing, this production also spoofs the equally cultish Night of the Living Dead, and there are a few snatches of rat-atat dialogue that would be more at home in a Warner Brothers programmer, such as the pronouncement, “That kid’s wound up like an eight-day clock!” Nevertheless, Czarny’s version is certainly way more gayed up than the Showtime movie, mostly in the bustling junkie orgy sequences that abound with unsubtle innuendo. (There’s a pun in there somewhere.) The big production numbers, choreographed by co-star Brunson, are also hilariously over the top, as the dozen dancers fill the stage with movement and color. Lighting designers Dan and Rhiannon Randall favor a sickly chartreuse hue, while a moment featuring strobe-light effects for a pivotal hit-and-run scene amusingly enhances the lowbrow psychedelia.
Czarny’s direction does achieve a kind of affectionately ratty grandeur, and there aren’t many other area venues like the Locker Room that would provide such an ideal home for this outré evening. The deliberate campiness does create something that feels closer to an eye-popping Tex Avery cartoon, however. The manic waste case played by Rob Fonda, for instance, offers one moment when he’s hump ing various onstage objects because nobody else will dirty-dance with him. And for some longtime theatergoers, Alex Cupelo’s appearance as Jesus may conjure memories of Salt City Center for the Performing Arts thespian Dan’l Plumridge.
Actress Jodie Baum, however, manages to top the rambunctious efforts of this caffeinated ensemble. As Mae, a woman of ill repute, Baum plays the role to blowsy perfection, getting laughs from her wisegal banter but also some sympathy when her dealer Jack starts slapping her around. Blessed with a belt-em-out voice that is used for Mae’s torch song “The Stuff,” Baum’s performance is the nearest thing in the show to an actual human character.
Of course, Reefer Madness: The Musical’s biggest joke is that the forbidden puffs of marijuana are supposed to lead to the unleashing of inhibited desires, when it seems that most potheads simply get the munchies and then crash in the sack. Yet there are miles of smiles to be found in Not Another Theater Company’s current production. Just try to say no to these head games.
This production runs through July 30.
See Times Table for information.