REEFER MADNESS ★★★½
Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney
Chapel Off Chapel
Until December 4
Reefer Madness was one of the first movies to be embraced as a "cult classic", and like all the purest camp, it began with serious purpose. Financed by a church group in the late 1930s and originally titled Tell Your Children, the film aimed to warn parents of the perils of marijuana (now legal for recreational use in eight US states).
Ben Adams in Reefer Madness: The Musical.
No one is saying cannabis is risk-free, but as anti-drug propaganda goes, nothing has ever come close to being as rabid and ill-informed as Reefer Madness. Smoking pot, if you take the film's risible plot at face value, leads to: Rape! Cannibalism! Murder! You'll sell your own baby for dope money! Take a chainsaw to your neighbour's pet! A ticket to death row, guaranteed!
Combined with woeful acting and editing, the hysterical pitch made ideal fodder for 1960s counter-culture, which reclaimed Reefer Madness as unintentional parody.
Rosa McCarty in Reefer Madness: The Musical.
It's also a fun idea for a musical theatre adaptation, and the team behind Legally Blonde: The Musical has run with it, producing a ridiculous romp that sets the "demon weed" firmly in its sights. As the cast sings in the closing number: "With voices raised in song, we're banishing the bong!"
Framed as a lecture from a bespectacled teacher (James Cutler), we follow the clean-cut Jimmy Harper (Ben Adams) and his saccharine high-school sweetheart Mary Lane (Grace O'Donnell-Clancy) as they're drawn into the disastrous clutches of the local reefer den.
Awaiting them are the rapacious gangster Jack Stone (Jared Bryan), his qualm-stricken but addicted moll Mae (Rosa McCarty), promiscuous pusher Sally (Phoebe Coupe), and the creepy Ralph (Stephen McDowell) – a former college jock, now pledged to the fraternity of Alpha-Phi-Cannabis.
Chapel Off Chapel is known for hosting quality indie productions of off-Broadway musicals. Stephen Wheat directs a talented ensemble, who carve out cheesy and slightly grotesque caricatures, sing with aplomb (sometimes with super-sized spliffs in their mouths) and abandon themselves to trashy choreography.
High vibes: Reefer Madness: The Musical takes a tongue-in-cheek look at cannabis hysteria.
Adams and O'Donnell-Clancy are especially well cast, but there's no weak link among the leads. And the performances benefit from theatrical design that translates into ludicrous spectacle the flaws of the original film, through dodgy spotlighting, cardboard props, cartoonish period costume, and eye-popping chorus numbers.
While there's room left to sharpen some of the comedy, this enjoyable, colourful production of a deliciously silly musical should leave you on a high.