I’m a sucker for Jesus onstage in sequins. Especially when he’s surrounded by Franklin D. Roosevelt, a prison guard, a deadbeat cannabis whore and Uncle Sam, just to name a few, in a grand finale dance number. I didn’t realize this before watching K-Mo Productions’ local showing of Reefer Madness: The Musical, but now I do, because no matter how hard I try I can’t dislodge the ridiculous image of actor Monte Jenkins vamping across the stage topless in a glittery sarong-type thing and singing, “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy.” Just how memorable is Jenkins’ Jesus? Memorable enough that I’m stuck on that mental picture, and not on the nearly nude dancing weed orgy in which the entire cast covers its privates with nothing but marijuana leaves and transparent green fabric. With apologies to Jesus Christ Superstar, Reefer Madness is the best thing that’s happened to J.C.’s entertainment career since he whipped Santa Claus on “South Park” more than a decade ago.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
Musical theater descends a slippery slope from tragic romance to social and/or political commentary, satire to camp, B-level camp to Liza Minnelli—and finally to Reefer Madness: The Musical. To call the original music, lyrics and book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney simply campy is like calling Kevin Federline merely unsophisticated. It misses the context, the wholeness of the situation.
Murphy and Studney wrote Reefer in 1997 after listening to Frank Zappa and experiencing an epiphanic call to spoof the fear-based 1936 antidrug cult classic film. Surely they were sober. What the duo came up with is an approach in which not even the kitchen sink is safe: a loose storyline of teens gone bad told through a series of skits, like a “Saturday Night Live” routine-turned-movie that often delivers laughs, sometimes swings and misses and, whichever the result, moves obliviously and quickly on to the next punchline. In Reefer Madness, this framework leaves no taboo untouched and, considering the subject matter, no glass ceiling of hyperbole unshattered.
The musical opens on the cautionary note of a high-school lecturer (the outstanding Kurt Duffner) informing the audience that tonight the cast from the school’s Green Grows the Lilacs will perform a vital public service announcement that “Urges—No! commands us—to take up arms against a leafy green assassin.” The subsequent story revolves around good ol’ Jimmy Harper (Jared Van Heel in a drastically different role than his hyper-aggressive cop in Breach) and sweet little Mary Lane (relative newcomer Margie Hunt), two All-American kids in love who help each other with their homework and share vanilla shakes at the local malt shop. Their Rockwellian utopia gets turned upside down when Jimmy meets Jack (Monte Jenkins again), a dealer who shares his drug den with a bevy of baked babes and a strung-out college dropout. From there the downward trajectory is obvious, but the previously unknown depths to which the demon weed will drop you are startling—apparently, after just one toke, you’ll lose all bodily control, dry hump inanimate objects, chainsaw felines, turn cannibalistic, make out with your mother and chow down like a Griz lineman at Sizzler.
What makes this stew of silliness work so well is that director Tassi Duffner and the entire cast know exactly how much to ham the whole thing up. The props, for example, are cartoonishly large cardboard cutouts that add a Who Framed Roger Rabbit? sense of absurdity to the proceedings. A parading placard girl dressed like a hussy punctuates scenes by displaying messages such as, “Reefer makes you giggle for no good reason” and “Reefer gets you raped…And you won’t care.” Then there are the performances themselves: Jenkins’ exaggeratedly slinky poses as Jack look like something from Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy; Van Heel geeking out far beyond any Eddie Haskell bounds; Hunt’s teenage Shirley Temple impression; Robin Rose channeling Betty Boop as the den’s ditsy tramp; and Dianna Andrade’s crookedly preening smile á la Joan Collins as Jack’s guilt-ridden girl Mae—all of them are playing over-the-top caricatures of already bloated characters, and more often than not they hit their marks.
That’s not to say Reefer Madness doesn’t have its flaws. The performance is rough around its edges, and certain scenes fall flat (Mae’s introduction) or suggest lame afterthoughts (the dull police chase). On the production end, the sound was inexcusably inconsistent throughout the show, making many characters difficult to hear over the accompanying live band situated at the front of the house. But, aside from the sound issues, a production like this is expected to have its uneven patches, and Reefer hardly sits still long enough to allow the audience to dwell on them long. In fact, Hunt’s uninspired church pew number almost made my miss list, salvaged only by the sudden and completely unexpected arrival of Jesus and a correspondingly complete change in tone.
That sort of whiplash—with or without a shimmering Jesus—is what ultimately makes Reefer Madness endearing. If you don’t find the current scene amusing, wait a few seconds and it will surely switch to something completely different. It’s a manically outlandish ride, pulled off with fearlessness and aplomb, and one deserving of an audience equal to the task.
Reefer Madness continues at the Wilma Theatre through Saturday, Sep. 2, with shows nightly at 7:30 PM. On Saturday there will be a second show at midnight. $14/$12 student.