Reefer Madness begin as a 1936 film financed by a church group entitled Tell Your Children about the dangers of marijuana use; it was later retitled and re-edited into the exploitation film we know today, screened throughout the ’40s and ’50s. Reefer Madness is considered to be one of the worst movies ever made, one that is “so bad, it’s good,” and it’s exaggerated scenes of behavior allegedly fueled by “weed” are unintentionally humorous.
Reefer Madness: The Musical, written by Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy, began its life in 1998 in Los Angeles, eventually having the misfortune of opening off-Broadway a few weeks after September 11, 2001; it ran for only about a month. There was still plenty of life in the material yet, as future productions and a 2005 film adaptation bare witness. Written and performed with tongue placed firmly in cheek, Reefer Madness: The Musical is perhaps a bit overlong (it doesn’t need the intermission), but its spirit is in the right place in the same vein as another musical based on a cult film, Little Shop of Horrors.
Alan Saunders is Jimmy, the lead of the show that goes from squeaky-clean to drug fiend with his first puff. Mr. Saunders has the kind of baby face that works for the part, all wide-eyed innocence and sweetness. He even looks “period” and dapper with his cap and preppy sweater, though his haircut is more suited to the ’50s than the ’30s. Still, his energy fuels the show to a large degree, and his likability factor is very high. Mr. Saunders is also created with the lighting design which is bold and saturated, well-suited to the material.
Julia Belle Ott is Jimmy’s girlfriend, Mary. Ms. Ott meets Mr. Saunders beat-for-beat in every department, and they have great chemistry. Even when a few of the ensemble members appeared to be just going through the paces (the Sunday matinee I attended had a lot of empty seats), Ms. Ott was sprightly and “on,” singing and bouncing along as if a full house was cheering her on.
Holly Ciampa as Mae owns “The Stuff,” one of the most memorable songs in the show. Ms. Ciampa knows that the song is outrageously exaggerated and funny, but she plays it with all seriousness, which only makes it funnier. Her blazing hair and flouncy muumuu are as much a part of her role as her world-weary expressions, and I only wish there was more of her in the show.
Alicia Brown is delightfully demented as young mother Sally, a woman of questionable maternal instinct. Ms. Brown has a scene where she giggles diabolically when asked about the location of her baby that is hilarious. Drea Blau also makes an impression in her silent role as the placard girl, looking a bit like Mae West as she prances across the stage holding up signs warning against the dangers of marijuana. Ms. Blau has a marvelous poker face that she uses to great effect.
Aside from some ensemble members who didn’t come off as consistently committed to their parts, Jim Bouyack as the lecturer was the only rather weak link in the cast. He sang perfectly fine and appeared engaged, but whenever he spoke he would stutter and flub, seemingly from trying too hard to be menacing in his delivery. The production also had moments where the transition from one scene to the next was slow and a bit sloppy.
The only major drawback to the production was the sound. I know Axis is a nightclub, but the volume level that works for a crowded Saturday night of dancers is not pleasant for a Sunday afternoon matinee of theatre. To compensate for the high volume of the band the audio levels for the performers have been raised as well, resulting in a loud, unintelligible cacophony of sound. There were many songs in which I could only tell what the performers were singing by lip reading. I hope the sound design is modified depending on the audience as I heard comments from other patrons that they had issues with it as well.
The unequivocal highlight of the show is the orgy scene, worth the price of admission alone. The scene has the entire cast stripping down to their skivvies and engaging in simulated sexual activity, complete with a half-goat man as a kind of emcee. Though the scene is quite hilarious it also is rather beautiful, the cast full of people of all shapes and sizes grinding and fondling each other in Technicolor lights.
I enjoyed Reefer Madness: The Musical, probably more than I would’ve because I had a friend with me. Most of my theatregoing is done solo (no, really, it’s okay), but this is a show that screams out to be experienced by friends. Days later and my friend and I are still quoting lines and talking about the orgy scene. I look forward to Cyclodrama’s The Rocky Horror Show this fall.
Reefer Madness: The Musical continues through to August 8th in Axis Nightclub at 775 North High Street, and more information can be found at http://www.cyclodrama.com