Joint Venture

In Reefer Madness, New Line scores some killer weed

Jun 9, 2004 at 4:00 am
It's 1936, and there's a growing terror on the streets, worse than jazz, more insidious than communism. It's marijuana. One puff can lead to a life of depravity, murder and bad manners. The movie Reefer Madness was created to put the fear of reefer into American minds. The musical Reefer Madness was created to put those minds at ease, poking fun at the Roosevelt era's demonization of the drug. Kevin Murphy's sly lyrics and Dan Studney's music are the highlights of New Line Theatre's mostly hilarious telling of this cautionary tale.

Warning us of the horrors to come, the Lecturer (Tom Conway) introduces the viewer to Jimmy Harper (Percy Rodriguez) and Mary Lane (Amanda Butcher), naive high-school sweethearts in the vein of Our Town's George and Emily. Butcher is perky in pink, with a sweet voice that matches her face; Rodriguez is bow-tied and baby-faced. Their duet, in which they imagine a happy ending for Romeo and Juliet, scores laughs with its over-the-top sappiness. Enter the weed pusher, Jack (played with oily confidence by Jeff Pruett) and his girlfriend Mae (Susan Arnold Marks), a down-on-her-luck under-his-thumb doormat whose good intentions go up in smoke. Marks makes both her "addiction" and her struggle against Jack believable.

The evil of Jack's reefer den is pitted against the apparent goodness of the "Five-and-Dime," where Jimmy and Mary are scheduled to meet. Like the big bad wolf, Jack slinks to the store, looking for a new victim. Before he succeeds in luring Jimmy to his evil empire, he leads the teens in a snappy jitterbug number (dancing drug dealers -- who knew?). Back in Jack's lair, Jimmy takes a puff and is immediately stripped to his underwear and taken away for a "carnal carnival" (nicely rhymed with "bacchanal"). One puff, the Lecturer points out, was all it took to "transform Jimmy from a good egg to a bad apple."

More groan-inducing rhymes are on tap in Mary's prayerful ballad "Lonely Pew." "The wafers don't taste so great/ They don't transubstantiate," she croons. Her woeful cries lead to the hilarious highlight of Act One: the appearance of Jesus as a lounge singer intent on saving Jimmy's soul. In delightful double-deity work, Pruett also plays God's son, wearing a laughably awful wig and beard. Backed by a chorus line of singing nuns (including the beatific Colin DeVaughan), they do a kind of Christ and the Anti-Temptations routine, urging Jimmy to "Give up the marijuana/This comes straight from the Madonna." But it takes more than Christ's choral crusade to convince Jimmy to stop -- it's not until he accidentally kills an old man while out joyriding that he realizes his need to escape Jack's evil weed.

The biggest topic of discussion during intermission was what the actors were really smoking onstage, as the authentic aroma of their cigarettes led to some lively debates about their contents. And in Act Two, the Smell-O-Rama continues: The evil drug leads to murder, cannibalism and the awakening of Mary's inner dominatrix. Jesus returns, working the audience ("Body of me, body of me!" he calls as he tosses wafers to the crowd), and Mae finally escapes Jack's clutches to save Jimmy from being executed for a murder he didn't commit -- or does she? The somber Lecturer insists that when reefer is involved, there can be no happy ending. He restages the finale, urging Americans everywhere to "tell your children, fight the madness, save our country!"

Standouts in the ensemble include Nicholas Kelly and Gypsy Brown. Kelly sings a side-splitting lullaby (as a baby), and Brown's golden voice adds shine to every musical number. It's unfortunate that the company needs body microphones in order to be heard over the amplified music -- the lyrics are crystal clear, but the visual effect is distracting. Director Scott Miller uses the wide stage effectively, but the pacing during dialogue doesn't match the crisp energy of the songs. Robin Berger's choreography is humorously snappy; combined with the fun songs, they happily critique the silly things Americans fear.