BWW Reviews: FAC's Trip into REEFER MADNESS
FAC Artistic Director Scott Levy has a warning for audience members about to partake in Reefer Madness. "This is not Mary Poppins," he cautions. "It's Mary Jane."
Indeed, audiences looking for family-friendly fare would do well to wait until Guys and Dolls later this season. Ah, but how can we be properly informed about the dangers of marijuana use if we do not descend into its sordid world of sex, lies, theft, vehicular homicide, jazz music, and French kissing?
Reefer Madness: The Musical approaches its source material-a 1936 exploitation propaganda piece that frequently features in "worst movies ever" lists-in the ironic spirit that made the film a cult classic. (One of the production sponsors is an "alternative medicine" dispensary.) It looks back and laughs at the dated values and horrified pearl-clutching of yesteryear, a perspective particularly suited to our "green" state. Even those still not on board with legalized pot will find plenty to amuse them in the over-the-top cautionary tale.
Guided by a ramrod-straight, patriarchal Lecturer (Max Ferguson), the audience is informed of the tragic history of Jimmy Harper (Andrew Wilkes) and Mary Lane (Chelsea Ringer), teenage lovebirds so innocent and naïve they assume Romeo and Juliet must have a happy ending. Jimmy is led into temptation by dope pusher Jack (Kenton Fridley) and takes a toke, descending almost instantly into a world of sin and vice (represented by an orgy of cannabis-clad dancers). Soon Jimmy has transformed from clean-cut kid to twitchy drug addict, and even a stirring lounge number from Jesus himself (Fridley again) can't save him.
Along the way, the Lecturer and a slogan-bearing Placard Girl (Becca Vourvoulas) warn audiences of the consequences of the devil weed. ("Reefer makes you giggle...for no good reason!") William Randolph Hearst's yellow journalism is held up as gospel. Minorities, homosexuals, and communists are implicated in the menace.
Nathan Halvorson does a fine job playing up the inherent hyperbole and melodrama in the story, making the most of its comic value. Wilkes and Ringer bring cheerful smiles and golly-gee-whiz inflection to the all-American protagonists, entertaining in both their oblivious niceness and their tawdry degradation. (Ringer has a brilliant song where Mary innocently smokes a joint-she thought it was ordinary, harmless tobacco!-and instantly turns into a lustful dominatrix.) Caren Tackett shows off some powerful pipes as Mae, Jack's lover who has qualms about selling drugs to kids but is too beaten down by her hunger for "The Stuff" to object. As the Lecturer, Ferguson delivers his ominous warnings with fire-and-brimstone flair and a stern authority that will brook no dissent.
And that's the true brilliance of Reefer Madness-it's not just a spoof on a piece of outdated propaganda, but an examination of how that propaganda is used to cultivate hysteria and guide public opinion. We laugh at the absurdity of laying all the evils of the world at Mary Jane's door. Then we recall the same sermons (with different demons attached) are still being preached from pulpits and newsdesks around the country, and it's not so absurd anymore.
REEFER MADNESS: THE MUSICAL plays now through March 1st at the Fine Arts Center, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. For tickets, contact the box office at 719-634-5583 or visit csfineartscenter.org.