Oh what a difference a decade makes. When Reefer Madness: the Musical premiered in New York in October of 2001, its campy send-up of God, patriotism, and starchy clean Protestant values felt ill timed. The new musical, by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, had just run successfully in Los Angeles for over a year, and so a transfer to New York seemed like a logical step. Then came 9/11. The mood of the country shifted. Mocking America went ever so briefly out of vogue. Reefer Madness opened at The Variety Arts Theater to lukewarm reviews, and then closed quickly. Although the musical subsequently achieved greater successes – several international productions and a TV version soon followed – it didn’t make its way back to New York until now. This time around, Brooklyn’s Gallery Players has mounted Reefer Madness at a prescient moment in American politics. A tangled relationship to the country's cultural history is in the show's roots. Based on the 70’s cult classic film Reefer Madness, itself a re-cutting of the 1938 morality movie Tell Your Children, the musical addresses the evils of cannabis in a small American town. Tell Your Children was created to warn parents against the evils of “marihuana,” but any film in which a few joints drive people completely bonkers has the makings of a stoner comedy. The 70’s version, re-titled Reefer Madness, mocks the extremes of the original film, in which wholesome American teens go from quoting Shakespeare to becoming shiftless murderers and – worse? – engaging in premarital sex.
The musical, however, stakes out a different position for itself in relation to the 1938 original. While it indulges in heaps of campy exaggeration, the show also takes aim at the fear mongering which drives the original film. “We are taking down all the fingerprints/ of jazz musicians and immigrants!” goes a gleeful lyric from the musical’s faux-uplifting finale. Nine years and two wars after the show’s initial New York run, with tensions surrounding race and nationality dominating the current election season, the musical’s sardonic celebration of political scare tactics is utterly timely.
The Gallery Players’ production has a firmer grasp of history than its program notes, copied from Wikipedia (someone get these people a dramaturg!), might first lead audiences to suspect. Still, under the direction of Dev Bondarin, the show’s political undertones don’t develop as seamlessly as they might. Instead, when the production jerks from playful camp to pointed commentary, the shift feels unsupported. Stronger moments include the full company numbers “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy, a gospel riff, and the titular "Reefer Madness" a zombie-ish masquerade. Those numbers more successfully indulge pop culture aesthetics while applying them to the musical’s central warnings about media and messages.
Soule Golden’s costume design in particular does a great job of setting the show’s aesthetic, from monster masks (“Reefer Madness”) to feathery halos and white high heels (“Listen to Jesus”). The chorus’ most basic outfits – girls in bright primary colored dresses, boys in sweater vests and slacks – are pretty terrific too.
The six-person chorus of Reefer Madness is consistently excellent. Period appropriate, enthusiastic yet disciplined, they steal the show – and Joe Barros’ choreography helps them do it. Actors Jose Restrepo and Jaygee Macaougay also deserve special mention for their portrayals of Jack and Mae, the couple who lures the unsuspecting teens to degradation.
Next week voters in California will decide whether to legalize the drug that plays the real villain of Reefer Madness. If critiquing a politics of fear feels as timely as ever, the object of that fear seems to have shifted over the last seventy years. Then again, maybe not. At the opening weekend of Reefer Madness, after the drug leads to murder, false imprisonment, and cannibalism, an audience member was heard whispering to her companion, “that’s what happens if you smoke that reefer.”