The original Reefer Madness served as an antipot propaganda flick, produced in 1936 by moralists. It's a sobering flick, considering that the forces of disinformation are still at it. Reefer Madness the musical, meanwhile, now enjoying a lovingly over-the-top production at Wilton Manors' Rising Action Theatre, is really, really funny.
As a conscious spoof of a camp classic, it's a complicated little piece. How do you satirize something that was so overblown to begin with? And how do you make intentional comedy out of something that was only ever accidentally funny? The obvious answer is to make the message so overblown, so ludicrously out-of-sync with reality, that the only possible response is laughter. For a little while, it seems like that's what Rising Action is doing. But it's not.
Instead, this Reefer Madness is a tightly wrapped horror show that covers up scene after scene of truly frightening imagery with a bright gloss of good humor. Reefer Madness opens with the Lecturer (Bill Dobbins), who serves as the show's narrator, explaining the dreaded plague of demon weed now threatening Western civilization. Dobbins' face is masterfully contorted — it seems made entirely of angry, vibrating triangles, and his eyebrows writhe around like angry caterpillars. The impression is that the facial wiggling is meant to suggest all of the iddish impulses blasting around beneath his respectable surface.
The same effect is achieved, more delicately and more powerfully, by Conor Walton, who plays Jimmy Harper. Harper is the play's protagonist, the tragic lad at the center of the Lecturer's morality tale. When we meet him, he is so well-scrubbed it hurts, like he purges himself of sin each night with lye. Walton's portrayal is pure postcard America — a grin the size of the Great Divide; cheeks like golden deliciouses. His voice is high and adenoidal. Walton's Harper is so square that you want to throw a joint onstage to hasten his inevitable decline.
But Harper won't be introduced to Mary Jane for a while yet. For the moment, his great love is Mary Lane — a pipsqueak emanation of American girlhood, played with coltish glee by the lovely Chelsa Greenberg. When we meet her, she is imploring Harper to help with her English homework — they're studying Romeo & Juliet in class. Soon they are comparing their love affair to the one in the play, imagining that the star-crossed lovers will be married and have children. (Kids didn't know much in the 1930s.) Then they're courting, and Mary Lane, feeling frisky, invites Harper to a teen dance for the weekend. Harper panics. He knows he's too square to dance. So he does what we all do when faced with problems: Go to the five-and-dime and set about crying into his root beer float.
That's where he meets Jack, a drug pusher played with fabulous, oily sleaze by hunky Larry Buzzeo. Jack invites Harper back to his pad for a "real" party — and, he intimates, dance lessons.
Really, though, Jack just wants to get Harper hooked on the demon weed, which he does. When Harper takes his first hit, Jack's psychedelic "reefer shack" transforms into a satanic pleasure palace, a swirling bacchanal of sex and sin — all of the manifold pleasures eschewed by nice kids like Jimmy Harper and recklessly indulged in by those of us who attend places like Rising Action. It looks like a helluva lot of fun.
Indeed, the new Jimmy Harper — disheveled, gravelly voiced, sex-crazed, and funny — is a big improvement over the corn-cob-up-the-ass squaroid who was parading around the set moments earlier. Unfortunately, he takes the whole thing too far, as drug fiends are wont to do. Within days, he is a rapist, an imbecile, and a reckless driver. Within weeks, he is a madman. And a killer!
As realized by Rising Action, Harper's transformation is a delight to witness and also a bit scary. The action in Reefer Madness is never quite absurd enough to be safe: It is often too grizzly and too plain weird to avoid being thoroughly unsettling. Watch how Jack's hard-bitten lover (Nicole Niefeld) stoically composes herself after Jack beats her or the way the writers have made a joke out of a sex kitten named Sally (the fabulously proportioned Lindsey Forgey) selling her child to buy more marijuana. When the child appears onstage to sing of his abandonment, the situation is both ludicrous and cringe-inducing because the scene is so cruel and surreal. It's a strange thing to see, and its strangeness is amplified by the performance of Joel S. Johnson, who, donning the tyke's getup, turns his voice into a strangled, plaintive warble.
Johnson's strange noises are emblematic of this production, which has the strongest aesthetic sense of any I've seen at Rising Action. The set is right out of Dr. Caligari, full of unnatural angles and mean green and purple lights. (The play's color scheme is similar to that of the colorized version of Reefer Madness, the movie, which came out in 2004.) It's not an environment in which one feels entirely on-balance, and no one in the theater does. That's a good thing.
Reefer Madness is not a perfect show. The singing is occasionally off-key and suffers continually from a lack of amplification. Each of the singers individually has the vocal power to overcome the prerecorded music coming out of the P.A., but they don't have the power to overcome one another: The ensemble numbers are mixed terribly for want of any mixing at all.
It's a significant problem, but Reefer Madness represents either Rising Action Theatre's coming into its own or else finding its niche. The historically uneven theater doesn't have much money, and even in this show, you get the sense that the production values are only a level or two above community theater. But a sense of fun or danger or excitement can compensate for a lot, and Rising Action's got it like no one else.