Reefer Madness

Sheafer Theater, Bryan Center, Duke University
Through Jan. 31

The tale of how Reefer Madness got to stage would fund a stage play in itself. The church group that purportedly funded a 1936 anti-drug film titled Tell Your Children must not have checked Dwain Esper’s references very closely when they made that distribution deal with him. For by then, the self-styled “King of the celluloid gypsies”and grandfather of exploitation filmshad already exhibited a mummified human corpse at screenings of his movie Narcotic and previously shot two lurid “educational” films about opium use (Sinister Harvest) and adultery (The Seventh Commandment).

Once Esper acquired Children, he re-edited it, inserting sexually daring footage for the times: a fully clothed couple or two making out on a sofa or chaise lounge. Then he renamed it Reefer Madness and exhibited the film in traveling tent shows that usually stayed a step ahead of local police and censorship laws.

After the hour-long melodrama lapsed into well-deserved obscurity, Kenneth Stroup, founder of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML), discovered a copy of the film in the Library of Congress’ archives in 1971. The over-the-top rhetoric and depictions of sudden moral collapse after a few puffs of the “green assassin” were no longer scandalous or scary; they were ludicrous instead. With its copyright lapsed, Stroup bought and made copies of the work, and distributed them to college campuses. A midnight cult film classic was (re)born.

Fast-forward another quarter-century. Under the influence of nothing stronger than the Frank Zappa rock opera Joe’s Garage, writer Kevin Murphy and composer Dan Studney got the idea to turn the film into a musical during a cross-California road trip. A year later, the result was a smash: Its Los Angeles premiere (starring Christian Campbell, who also played the lead this fall in Hot Summer Night’s production of Drift) swept the city’s theater awards in 1999, and a New York pilgrimage was planned.

Why then did the New York productioncomplete with a choreographic upgrade by Paula Abdullast exactly three weeks off-Broadway? Middling reviews played an obvious part, but the show’s opening date tells the rest of the story. Reefer Madness opened in New York just three weeks after the World Trade Center bombings of Sept. 11, 2001. Before it closed, though, enough people had been impressed to ultimately give the work a new incarnationand finally bring it full circle to its motion picture roots: A film version of the musical starring Campbell, Alan Cummings and Kristin Bell was produced for Showtime in 2005.

How did Murphy and Studney satirize a film that was already a mockery of sensationalist anti-drug propaganda by the time they saw it? By distorting the distortions of the 1936 film even further.

In that work’s original seduction of the innocent, the demon weed causes uncontrollable gigglingand manic energy, instant nymphomania, blurred vision and a collection of nervous twitches, tics and laughs. At least it lets you dance and play piano better.

In Hoof ‘n’ Horns’ production of the musical, the first couple of hits that wholesome high-schooler Jimmy (Robert Francis) takes place him in the center of a Satanic orgy, gleefully choreographed by Rebecca Stone, replete with dancers whose flesh-toned body-stockings are graced by strategically placed cannabis leaves. And that’s only Jimmy’s first step down the wretched path of crime, degradationand paranoid pet abusethat can only end at the executioner’s door.

Nor is he the only soul so affected. A few unwitting puffs puts his saccharine girlfriend, Mary Jane (Nina Wu), in touch with her equally cheerful inner S&M queen, before it gives their newfound friend Ralph (a notably quirky Charlie Haley) a truly killer case of the munchies.

Naturally, each plot development comes with its own song cue. Jimmy and Mary’s budding feelings for each otherand their utter cluelessness when it comes to life’s more tragic possibilitiesare documented in the romantic cackler “Romeo and Juliet,” before Mae (Thea Crane), the fallen but still good-hearted matron of the local reefer den, melodramatically whispers her way through her confessional of addiction, “The Stuff.” Choreographer Stone indulges in modified sock hop jive in the up-tempo “Down at the Ol’ Five and Dime,” after turning her charges into a cadre of hollow-eyed, dope-fiend zombies elsewhere in the show.

The sordid tale is narrated by a stern character dubbed The Lecturer (Cameron McCallie), who presents Jimmy and Mary’s story to a group of concerned parents at a local high schoolwhen he’s not playing bit parts in various scenes. In the rousing finale, “The Truth,” he and cast members mention a number of other dangerous substances to be cast into the pits of Hell after reefer has been routed. The list includes the works of Darwin, Marx and Freud. “When danger’s near, exploit their fear,” he confidently advises us, “the end will justify the means.”

Kevin Murphy’s dialogue and lyrics are comically rewardingbut only when they can be heard by the audience. On opening night, this remained too central a problem for most of the major characters throughout the production.

I’ve seen many a show fight the room it was housed in due to some misfit with the tech, acoustics or architecture built into the space. But the simple inability of the lead actors in this production to project their voices half the distance across Sheafer Theater’s intimate black box space led this production to unwisely banish music director Aaron Salley’s six-piece band to a room off-stage, reducing it a tinny, piped-in sound that still regularly overpowered the actors onstage.

Vocal projection is one of the basics in the crafts of acting and singing. With so much going for the show in other areas, here’s hoping the leads can at least begin to acquaint themselves with the techniques before the production resumes this week. Given the degree to which their difficulties sabotage an otherwise promising work, refresheror first-timeclasses would seem mandated for the ensemble as a whole.