by Chris Davis
What makes Reefer Madness (the musical, not the movie) such a nice fit for the Halloween slot at Circuit Playhouse? It’s full of terrifying zombies —- Dope zombies! In fact, the musical itself is a kind of zombie, that might be easily and accurately described as the reanimated corpse of a forgotten feature, laid to rest generations ago, but brought back to life by an activist drug fiend, and kept alive by his savage, pot-addled minions.
Reefer Madness, dead since the 1930’s, was resurrected in the 1970’s by a mad hippie seeking secret knowledge and money. While browsing through the Library of Congress film archives Keith Stroup, of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, stumbled across a forgotten church-financed exploitation film from the 1930's. The ridiculous propaganda film had been developed as a cautionary tale about the perils of smoking the demon weed, but it had been purchased and re-edited by an exploitation filmmaker and occasional sideshow huckster named Dwain Esper. Looking to make a buck Esper re-edited the film, gave it a sexier name and transformed into a timeless masterpiece of accidental comedy.
I have a confession to make. I’m overdosing on zombies. Over the years I’ve loved our undead brothers and sisters as much as the next George Romero cultist. But enough is enough. Nevertheless, director Dave Landis doesn’t wear out the gangrenous convention and this giddy, sometimes ghoulish tumble through America’s twisted Puritan psyche is good fun and full of fantastic performances.
As campy musicals go Reefer Madness is probably an act too long and most of the music is unmemorable. But it has its moments, and some of them are pretty spectacular. Fans of mid-century stereo exotica, the broadly-defined musical genre exemplified by artists like Martin Denny and Les Baxter, will get a kick out of “Jimmy Takes a Hit,” a trippy production number with appropriately over-the-top choreography courtesy of Courtney Oliver and Standrew Parker.
Landis has stylized everything and gets wonderfully precise and delightfully off kilter performances from all of his actors. It is especially fun to watch Corbin Williams’ Jimmy evolve from the perfect picture of promise and youthful exuberance into a sweaty, sex-crazed doob junkie with glazed over eyes, who’ll do anything for his next fix.
Williams is in good company. With her often affectless affect Morgan Howard conjures images of Vampira as Mae, a reluctant druggie hooked on, “The Stuff.” Kent Reynolds is an inspired choice for the brain-scrambled Ralph, Caroline Simpson disappears into Sally, a sex addict and strong candidate for world’s worst mom, and Richie MacLeod slathers pusher-man Jack Stone with gallons of vintage slime.
David Foster, who plays the story’s hip to be square narrator and steps into a number of smaller character parts, has long been one of my favorite local actors, and his performance in Reefer Madness exemplifies why. Foster allows every gag the all the time it needs to develop, and in this homage to terrible cinema his deliberately awkward, out of time timing couldn’t be more perfect.
There’s not much nutritional value in Reefer Madness but it’s a good time and loaded down with only the cheapest of theatrics. If it sounds like something you might like, you probably will. Besides, everybody’s doing it. And it won’t hurt you none.