Here’s a word not often applied to splashy musical extravaganzas that prominently feature orgies, zombie attacks, fire-eating, and maniacal, drug-fueled jitterbugging: subtle. But Studio’s production of Reefer Madness: The Musical is as canny as it is campy. Every moment of deliberately outsized, Hey-gang-I-got-some-costumes-in-the-barn glitz comes bracketed by a line or lyric that’s smaller and smarter.
So if for some reason you find yourself unmoved by the production number in which our hop-headed hero Jimmy (Andrew Sonntag) hallucinates a visitation from a lounge lizard Christ (Bobby Smith), don’t despair. Seek refuge in the song’s lyrics, which rhyme “Shroud of Turin” with “test your urine” and make it sound effortless, even inevitable. Is that flesh-colored bikini with the cannabis-leaf pasties too broad a joke for your tastes? Then spend some time marveling at how subtly and precisely narrator Lawrence Redmond captures newsreel gravitas with every dire warning he intones. Feel like you’ve seen the show’s go-for-broke, flag-waving finale before? Be patient. There’s a throwaway visual gag in the middle of it all that you don’t want to miss: a sly, casually brilliant bit of business involving a sparkler.
Yep, campiness is the engine driving this train, but that’s just as it should be, given the show’s midnight-movie provenance. It all began in 1936, when an anti-marijuana film called Tell Your Children got slapped together by a group of civic-minded Christians in sensible shoes. The sheer, indefatigable suckiness of its script, acting, and camerawork should have relegated it to a brief run on the church basement circuit. But even though Tell Your Children was a hot mess, it got snatched up by a producer of exploitation films who set about making it hotter and messier. He upped the lurid imagery by adding extra shots of bleached blondes lounging around in slips and bestowed upon it a title he felt sure would put asses in the sticky seats of the nation’s less reputable movie houses: Reefer Madness!
Cut to the 1970s, when the film was rediscovered by a generation of dirty hippies who’d grown tired of syncing up The Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz. They snickered over Reefer Madness!’s shocking depictions of wholesome teenagers driven to murder, suicide, and really energetic piano playing. Midnight screenings and prominent placement in worst-of cinematic compilations like 1982’s It Came From Hollywood! followed. From there, it was a straight shot to the stages of Los Angeles and off-Broadway.
Don’t expect Cheech and Chong pot giggles—Reefer Madness! is a drug comedy the same way Little Shop of Horrors is a chilling science-fiction tale, which is to say not at all. Co-authors Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney aren’t much concerned with marijuana itself; they take aim instead at the shameless fear-mongering that secured their source material’s cult status. As a target for parody, that’s the broad side of a particularly gargantuan barn. But it turns out to be enough, especially when the music to which these histrionic excesses are put is this engaging and the lyrics can so off-handedly conflate, say, young love and the first stirrings of
religious doubt: “The wafers now don’t taste so great/They won’t transubstantiate.”
As piccolo-throated ingénue Mary Lane, Lauren Williams handles the abrupt descent from virgin to virago effortlessly. She sometimes surprises the audience by letting sweet Mary’s high, lilting voice slip suddenly down to a huskier, lustier register; it comes as a legitimate shock each time, and the audience eats it up.
As Jimmy, the expressive Sonntag morphs between wide-eyed innocence and wild-eyed pot-fiendishness with the pop of an eyebrow. Channez McQuay’s matronly dope pusher Mae, she of the Judy Holliday voice and the Jayne Mansfield décolletage, provides the closest thing this gimlet-eyed show gets to a heart. Smith exudes deadpan menace as wiseguy Jack and oily smarm as the Son of Man.
Director Keith Alan Baker has streamlined the show to fit Studio’s smallish Secondstage, and the changes open up the production nicely. The Los Angeles and off-Broadway stagings featured a placard girl who’d hold up signs bearing anti-dope slogans; these dark admonitions now appear as rear projections on Giorgos Tsappas’ bright, simple set. Additional projections by Erik Trester provide a clever visual shorthand: A summer sky transports us to Mary’s backyard, a neon sign whisks us to the ol’ five-and-dime, and a simple swatch of velvet wallpaper is all it takes to denote Mae’s lascivious reefer den.
There are technical tweaks still to be made. A combination of unconvincing slow-motion choreography and a too-quick strobe light hobbles a climactic fight scene; Williams’ constricted voice gets drowned out by the band on several occasions.
The evening belongs to Redmond as the Lecturer, our guide through the weed haze. While those around him go broad, Redmond creates a character that is most emphatically not in on the joke, a study in deadly earnestness. Try as you might, you won’t catch the faintest glimmer of camp in Redmond’s eye: The guy could have stepped directly out of a mental-hygiene film. Say, a pre-war number slapped together by a group of civic-minded Christians in sensible shoes.