I hope fears about our current national problems turn out to be as unfounded as the perils of marijuana posited by the 1936 cult classic film Reefer Madness. The movie ominously warns: "Its first effect is sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter. Then come dangerous hallucinations ... followed by emotional disturbances, inability to direct thoughts, the loss of all power to resist physical emotions." Those symptoms also might describe audience reaction to Reefer Madness, The Musical, which The Storyville Collective opened at Cafe Istanbul and moves to Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts (Feb. 2-12).
Energetic performances by an ensemble cast under the able direction of Michael McKelvey, who also serves as artistic director of Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre, make Reefer Madness the perfect mindless escape we desperately need from overblown fears.
The script and score, written by Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy, may strike millennials as preposterous. Americans of the pre-World War II-era could be pretty naive. Many people believed a puff of marijuana could lead to radical transformation of character, as well as thievery, lasciviousness and manslaughter, possibly resulting in imprisonment and even a death sentence. Weed supposedly turned innocents into deranged "hooligans and whores." Fortunately for us, this absurd premise leaves the theatrical door wide open for hilarity.
In the show, all-American Jimmy Harper (Eli Timm) and winsome Mary Lane (Maggie Windler), dressed in letter sweater and saddle shoes, are ripe for temptation by the unscrupulous Jack (Alex Martinez Wallace) and slovenly Mae (Janie Heck), who prey on unsuspecting high school students lingering at the corner store. The dealers lure teenagers to their drug den, where the youngsters quickly lose all self control. The drug-addled Sally (Elyse McDaniel), who sells herself for tokes, neglects her infant, ultimately selling him for a fix. The narrator (Ken Goode), dressed in a tweed business suit, predicts "unspeakable acts of degradation."
Jiving to jazz drumbeats, the teens quickly discard clothing, leaving Jimmy wearing only a thong and Mary a camisole and nylons. Dance routines recalling "Thriller" zombie movements create wild vortexes of decadence. After a couple of drags, sweet Mary turns into a whip-wielding dominatrix. As the story unfolds, Jimmy drives while stoned, causes a fatal car crash and goes on the lam to avoid police.
The simple, predictable plot is enhanced by plenty of sight gags, including Luke Halpern doubling as Sally's abandoned infant and failed attempts at redemption by Jesus (Cameron-Mitchell Ware) and angels (Abby Botnick, Emily Bagwill). Placards walked across stage provide unessential subtext, such as "Reefer gives you potty mouth" and "Reefer annihilates true love."
Several cast members previously appeared in Toxic Avenger The Musical, another spoof based on a cult movie. Simple staging, vintage costumes by Hope Bennett and invigorating song and dance numbers, accompanied by musical director and pianist Jefferson Turner, drummer Kevin Estoque and bass player Taylor Mroski, make Reefer Madness enormously entertaining.