This country has a schizophrenic relationship with mind-altering drugs, and an addiction to fearmongering as the standard means to influence public opinion. "Reefer Madness: The Musical," capitalizes on both these phenomena, as relates to the plant species Cannabis sativa.
The Queen City Theatre Company's staging of the musical satire (based on a 1938 cult classic) is a one-gag play, but it's a good gag. The fun comes from the delicious hyperbole surrounding a high school couple's descent into madness after they smoke "the stuff."
Jimmy Harper is played by Jonathan Van Caudill, whose all-American personality is equal parts Howdy Doody and Opie. Bettina Martin, who has an angelic demeanor and the strongest voice in the show, plays his girlfriend, Mary Lane (get it?). When Jimmy is lured into Jack Stone's (Steven Martin) marijuana den, his first hit of the "reefer stick" elicits a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality change.
Director Glenn Griffin employs period costumes and wigs, clever foam board props, and strobe lights to lend the characters a cartoonish slant.
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Some of the musical numbers are spot on, including the opener, "Reefer Madness," where the ensemble resembles a pack of zombies, with bullet-ridden clothes and creepy masks. But "The Orgy" is over the top, though the atonal delivery might be the fault of the score, not the actors.
Robbie Jaeger plays an addict named George, whose hyena laughter is by turns hilarious, ridiculous and annoying. Alyson Lowe is Sally, a blond vixen who stays in stoned character through pratfalls, sexual orchestrations and general ditziness.
A little history about the musical's origins: In 1936, the movie "Tell Your Children" was financed by a church group for use as an educational tool that alleged marijuana could lead kids into lives of addiction, crime and insanity. The film was purchased by Dwain Esper, who diced and spliced it, and renamed it "Reefer Madness." The movie was never copyrighted, fell into the public domain, and became a fixture on the midnight movie circuit.
Co-book writers Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy adapted the movie into a musical, which earned seven 1999 L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards, and had a short off-Broadway run in 2001.
Several devices inject fresh humor into QCTC's production. Tom Ollis is the stern lecturer whose narration keeps the story grounded, and whose demeanor is as menacing as the subject matter. Karen Christensen is the placard girl, who sporadically crosses the stage with signs that say things like "Reefer makes you sell your baby for drug money."
This play meets one of Susan Sontag's 1964 descriptions of "camp," as "art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is 'too much.'" It is randy and bawdy, and the scene with a Uruguayan Jesus in metallic briefs (Kristian Wedolowski), Franklin Roosevelt and Uncle Sam will push some theatergoers outside of their comfort zone.
As of October 2010, medical marijuana is legal in 14 states and Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the Drug Enforcement Agency continues to spend billions of dollars fighting the illegal transport of nonmedical marijuana across U.S. borders. The reality of current policy toward marijuana is almost as exaggerated as this play. Almost.