Review: ‘Reefer Madness’

With "Bat Boy" taking a breather and "Urinetown" in residence uptown, Off Broadway is temporarily without a spoof tuner! But fear not: Here comes "Reefer Madness," a silly new show by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney loosely inspired by the scaremongering 1936 movie that became a cult hit and perennial party rental some decades later.

Heavens to Betsy! With “Bat Boy” taking a breather and “Urinetown” in residence uptown, Off Broadway is temporarily without a spoof tuner! But fear not: Here comes “Reefer Madness,” a divertingly silly new show by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney loosely inspired by the scaremongering 1936 movie that became a cult hit and perennial party rental some decades later.

Auds may be wearying of the tongue-in-cheek musical genre, as indeed may be critics, many of whom warmed to both of the aforementioned shows and may not be ready to embrace a third. But “Reefer Madness” offers plenty of entertainment on its own appealingly unpretentious terms, with a sweetly charming retro-rock score and a sublime cast of actors giving delectable performances in deliciously ridiculous roles. Best of all, in contrast to the more self-satisfied “Bat Boy” and “Urinetown,” “Reefer Madness” wears its foolishness lightly, making no claims to comment on the musical genre itself.

The mockery in “Reefer Madness” is aimed elsewhere — albeit at a fairly tired target. Gregg Edelman is our stern, pontificating narrator, a lecturer at Benjamin Harrison High School who, in the show’s conceit, presents for our edification a morality musical depicting the dangers of marijuana use. (Less of this cumbersome, one-joke framework would be more, particularly in a show that could stand to lose a good 20 minutes.)

The show proper presents the cautionary saga of sweet 16-year-old Jimmy (Christian Campbell), a wholesome high schooler in love with the pig-tailed girl next door, Mary (Kristen Bell). But one afternoon, in between jitterbugs at the Five & Dime, little Jimmy is seduced away to the local drug den by the resident pusher, Jack (Robert Torti). (The show is nominally set in 1936, but the tangy costumes by Dick Magnanti and daffy choreography by Paula Abdul — yeah, her! — are pretty loose.)

One toke of the demon weed and Jimmy is pawing blond trollop Sally (Erin Matthews), while Jack’s blowzy moll Mae (Michele Pawk) looks on teary-eyed, her maternal instincts smothered by addiction to the baleful substance. The trip to perdition for poor Jimmy is a quick one: Under the influence he steals Mary’s car and accidentally kills an old man, while her efforts to save him find her falling victim to the drug no less easily. The finale finds Mary in hell and Jimmy strapped to the electric chair. Woe is them! (A showgirl dressed as a super-glam usherette strolls across the stage at intervals with placards denoting the dire conclusion of the moment, such as, “Reefer makes you giggle — for no good reason!”)

The concept is a thin one for a two-act musical (and for a hallucinatory $60 top), but under director Andy Fickman’s pop-eyed direction, the performers stretch it out pleasurably for most of the running time. The songs, with music by Studney and lyrics by Murphy, are far stronger than the book. They’re written in the retro vein of “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Grease,” with simple, nifty melodies matched to infectious rhythms.

Highlights include a lyrical duet for the young lovers, “Romeo and Juliet,” and a camp extravaganza, “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy,” in ’60s rock-gospel mode, featuring Torti doubling as a bespangled, Vegas-style savior seeking to save the erring Jimmy’s soul (“I’m here to help you, Jimmy/And return you to the fold/Try filling your lungs with God/And not Jamaican Gold”).

Torti, with his razor-sharp goatee, makes a delightfully smarmy Jesus and is also pleasurably evil as the nefarious Jack. Pawk, back in her “Cabaret” fright-mask makeup after a stint in “Seussical,” is gloriously over-the-top as the degraded but good-hearted Mae. Matthews makes the lewd most of her less well-defined role as the bad blond, and John Kassir rounds out the cast of degenerates nicely as a wolf-like frat brother.

As the sweet kids gone to seed, Bell and Campbell are best of all, bringing to bouncing life with utter conviction these all-American paper dolls. Bell has a strong, piercing soprano and thousand-watt grin that grows delightedly lascivious when she strays into dark territory in an S&M duet with Ralph. And Campbell, contorting his Mickey Mouse Club mug into a frenzied leer and manipulating his small frame in amazing ways as the poison works its way through his system, is a constant delight to watch. In its own determinedly ludicrous way, Campbell’s Jimmy is as accomplished a comic performance as any on a New York stage right now.

Reefer Madness

Variety Arts Theater, New York; 499 Seats; $60 Top

Production

A James L. Nederlander and Verna Harrah presentation, in association with Nathaniel Kramer and Terry Allen Kramer and Dead Old Man Prods., of a musical in two acts with book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, lyrics by Murphy and music by Studney. Directed by Andy Fickman.

Creative

Choreography by Paula Abdul. Sets, Walt Spangler; costumes, Dick Magnanti; lighting, Robert Perry; sound, Lew Mead; fight director, Rick Sordelet; musical direction, David Manning; orchestrations, Nathan Wang, Manning; stage manager, Ritchard Druther. Opened Oct. 7, 2001. Reviewed Oct. 3. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast

Lecturer - Gregg Edelman
Jimmy - Christian Campbell
Mary - Kristen Bell
Jack/Jesus - Robert Torti
Mae - Michele Pawk
Sally - Erin Matthews
Placard Girl - Roxane Barlow
Ralph - John Kassir
With: Andrea Chamberlain, Jennifer Gambatese, Paul Leighton, Michael Seelbach.
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