Reefer Madness: The Musical is not at all what I expected it to be. The play is based on the 1936 propaganda film that extolled the evils of marijuana by luridly depicting innocent teens descending into attempted rape, murder and madness once the devil weed touched their lips. In the 1970s, the film was rediscovered and became a staple in the midnight movie community along with The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
I was not familiar with the 1998 musical that birthed itself from the howlingly terrible propaganda film and my expectations for the show were not the highest. Not because I didn't think 2nd Street Theater would do a good job with it, because they have been on a roll lately, but because a musical based on the stoner hit seemed like low hanging fruit. But the script is not interested in the easy jokes that those midnight screenings produce.
Reefer Madness: The Musical is instead dealing with some incredibly heady and modern topics and couches some serious social commentary in a big, goofy, bat-shit crazy musical. Marijuana is to be feared in the story. Something that causes (just to name a few things) incest, cannibalism, murder and Gollum-esque insanity.
The narrator constantly hits the audience with fire and brimstone proselytizing about weed's demonic ability and while it remains funny to watch fear mongering be so incredibly off-base, the show does not shy away from how incredibly tragic that type of belief system can be.
Marijuana is obviously a stand-in for heroin and meth in the play and watching the naive and innocent be swept up into its spell creates a very strange dichotomy. On one hand, the show is fun and fast paced with a few excellent musical numbers and plenty of laughs; yet, on the other hand, it is a pitch black satire at its core. When the final musical number reached its zenith, I realized I had just watched a "stoner musical" that was deconstructing 1950's conservatism, the war on drugs, domestic abuse, casual racism, the Department of Homeland Security and the "See Something, Say Something" mentality that encourages neighbor to fear neighbor.
The lead performances by Rebekka Swan and Ethan Antram are phenomenal with Antram giving a fearless performance with a staggering amount of range and Swan deconstructing a '50's dame to her rawest components. Tommy Kuchulis (most recently seen as The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz) shows up in duel roles as a pusher of the devil weed and as Jesus Christ himself, re-imagined as a cross between a motivational speaker and a douchey dude-bro.
Director Tom Atkinson has staged the show in such a way that the hallucinatory orgy of Bacchanalian revelry leads into a quiet character scene without giving the audience tonal whiplash and that is most definitely not an easy thing to pull off.
I'm curious to see what audience reaction for this show is going to be. While stoners and the straight-edged will have plenty of jaw-dropping things to look at, it is not a show designed to be mocked like the original film is. I walked out of the theater smiling, but also a bit depressed for how much truth the show managed to pack into its breezy running time. With conservatives denying climate change out of one corner of their mouth and screaming about airborne ebola out of the other, the type of fear mongering this musical ruthlessly decapitates is alive and well in 2014. Just when the thought of that became too overwhelming, then a grown-ass man in a diaper came on stage and all was right (for now) with the world.
Reefer Madness: The Musical
October 24-November 8, $19-$22
2nd Street Theater, 220 NE Lafayette
Tickets available at 2ndstreettheater.com