- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2007

Like marijuana, “Reefer Madness: The Musical” produces a temporary buzz that’s fun while it lasts. Yet the musical is essentially a one-toke experience, two acts that draw on the same stoner material.

At times “Reefer Madness” possesses ganja’s time-bending haze, as minutes drip into what seems like hours while you dazedly watch the exceptional cast whip through a seemingly bottomless stash of dope jokes, double-entendre drug references and campy depictions of sexually voracious women and hopped-up men.

The manic eagerness to produce a high gets so strong — or desperate, depending on your point of view — that at one point the actors throw an enormous beach ball into the audience and engage the crowd in a tossing game as if all of a sudden we were at a Pink Floyd concert. Another cutesy touch is catering to the munchies with brownies, candy and peanuts hawked by an old-fashioned concessionaire during intermission.


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“Reefer Madness” is a musical version of the cult midnight movie from the 1970s that did for grass what “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” did for black garters. If you remember the movie, you probably weren’t there. The jittery, histrionic 1936 film was originally titled “Tell Your Children” and was produced by a church group to warn youth about the crazy-making qualities of cannabis.

A producer of exploitation films renamed the feature “Reefer Madness” and re-cut it to be as overwrought as a Barbara Stanwyck weeper, adding racy shots of lingerie-clad women and sexual situations that more than implied marijuana and that other corrupter of youth — jazz music — were guaranteed to turn innocent children into sex- and drug-demented fiends.



The movie fell into obscurity until 1971, when Keith Stroup, founder of the lobbying group NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), discovered “Reefer Madness” in the Library of Congress archives and made it part of the late-night underground film circuit. Kevin Murphy, a head writer for “Desperate Housewives,” and composer Dan Studney adapted it to the musical stage in 1999.

Attempts by director Keith Alan Baker and set designer Giorgos Tsappas to re-create the B-movie excesses of the original film are the most enjoyable and entertaining aspects of the production. Projections at the back of the stage screen black-and-white movies like “King Kong” as well as hilariously incendiary posters warning against marijuana use that proclaim things like “Reefer gives you potty mouth” and “Reefer annihilates true love.” The set is emblazoned with cannabis leaf patterns that also show up on Yvette Ryan’s period-perfect costumes, most notably in an overheated dope dream sequence where Cotton Club-like chorus girls perform hootchie-cootchie dances in scanty costumes that feature sequined leaves where pasties and g-strings would normally be.

The story centers on swell teenagers Mary Lane (Lauren Williams) and Jimmy Harper (Andrew Sonntag) who turn into law-breaking delinquents and sexpots after one puff of a marijuana cigarette offered by the dapper pusher Jack Stone (Bobby Smith) and his loose-moraled molls Mae (Channez McQuay) and Sally (Rachel Zampelli).

What keeps “Reefer Madness” aloft is the energy of the cast and the uniform excellence of the performances. Miss Williams possesses a lilting soprano and projects sweetness with an interesting edge as Mary while her counterparts Miss McQuay and Miss Zampelli ooze lust and danger as dope den sirens. Veteran song and dance man Bobby Smith adds panache and polished gangster style to the part of Jack Stone, as does Larry Redmond as the repressed narrator.

For a while “Reefer Madness” makes you as giddy as the buzz from secondhand pot fumes — until the slightness and slapdash aspects of the show begin to dawn on you. The score is a collage of gospel, doo-wop, ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll and big band music, slinging together eras and genres until you don’t know whether it’s the FDR period or the Bush years. The tunes are almost generic musical parody — a rousing spiritual, followed by a sappy Sandra Dee love song and then the requisite campy tap number — and the lyrics are clever in a crude, scatological way. It’s “Psycho Beach Party” without the whacked-out wit.

(TWO AND ONE-HALF STARS) WHAT: “Reefer Madness: The Musical,” music by Dan Studney and lyrics by Kevin Murphy, book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney WHERE: Studio Theatre 2ndStage, 1501 14th St. NW WHEN: 8:30 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m., Sundays. Through Aug. 5. TICKETS: $39 PHONE: 202/332-3300 WEB SITE: www.studiotheatre.org MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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