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Reefer Madness

By New York City
Christian Campbell and Erin Matthewsin Reefer Madness(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Christian Campbell and Erin Matthews
in Reefer Madness
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The 1936 movie upon which the new musical Reefer Madness is based is an hysterical (as in overwrought) cautionary tale about the dangers of marijuana use. The rediscovered film became a cult classic when it began wafting through college campuses in the early 1970s. A movie to laugh at rather than laugh with, it was a one-joke experience; particularly in the context of the '70s, when the legality of reefer was still very much a public issue, it allowed audiences to laugh with pointed sarcasm and a feeling of superiority. All these decades later, the idea that smoking dope might lead to ruin seems altogether quaint; so the new musical that opened last night at the Variety Arts Theatre obviously intends for people to laugh with it, not at it. But the idea of Reefer Madness, the musical seems as tired as a 50-year-old hippie.

The show is designed for a young audience, and it works overtime to dress up its concept with as much hip shtick as librettists Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney can hallucinate. For what is still a one-joke concept, they've dreamed up a pretty funny script. When the trampy blonde of the show introduces herself by saying "What a night! I was in more laps than a napkin," you sit up and take notice. On the other hand, Studney's music is about as lively as a "Dead Old Man" (which is the title of one of the show's lamest numbers). The tunes are, at best, a vehicle for Murphy's lyrics, which far more imaginatively match the script's campy quality. To put it bluntly, Murphy's lyrics blow smoke rings around Studney's stale music.

The first rate cast works the show like a communal roach, getting every last puff of laughter out of the material. Gregg Edelman establishes the carefully calibrated, high camp tone and leads the laugh parade with his wickedly sly performance as "The Lecturer" who uses the play-within-the-play to show us the horrors of reefer. Christian Campbell plays Jimmy, the wholesome 16-year-old who gets hooked on marijuana (he originated the role in the L.A. production and took home an Ovation Award for Best Actor in a Musical). Campbell's comic skills become apparent in the second act, but it's hard to tell how well he sings, because the music is so undemanding. Kristen Bell, who plays Jimmy's sweet little girlfriend, Mary, has a wonderfully offbeat charm. Robert Torti is a delicious ham both as the reefer-selling villain, Jack, and the slick, strutting Jesus. The latter character is a real crowd-pleaser, especially when Torti goes out into the audience and invites people to touch him. All of these actors play their roles as cartoons; only Michele Pawk as Mae, Jack's girlfriend and the hostess of the reefer den, grounds her character in real emotion--and she gets big laughs precisely because the humor is coming from a real place. Unfortunately, like most everyone else in the cast, Pawk never gets a song worthy of her vocal talents.

Dick Magnanti's costume designs and Paula Abdul's choreography enhance the flamboyantly camp aspects of the show. As for Walt Spangler's set, its main stem (if you will) appears to be part of a giant cannabis plant, used largely as a bridge to give the set a second tier. It would be kind to say that it looks like a bad trip, because that would imply it was intended to be so unsightly.

Andy Fickman directs Reefer Madness with a lot of verve, taking every available opportunity to add some zest to an otherwise smoke-weight show. The musical is more entertaining than the movie--but that's not saying much.


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