Through February 11
REEFER MADNESS The Musical Shea’s Smith Theatre/O’Connell & Company
By Augustine Warner
There’s nothing more painful to an authoritarian than humor, since laughter can ease the pain of force.
That’s what makes the early 20th Century drug wars of federal bureaucrat Harry Anslinger such a target in the stage musical “Reefer Madness The Musical.”
Anslinger spent decades attacking drugs and spreading propaganda filled with racial stereotypes.
There’s a long and tangled history here in the humor, from a church-financed film attack on marijuana to Shea’s Smith Theatre staging a musical satirizing anti-drug propaganda.
The original church workers never properly handled copyright laws, so the material in the film became fair game and a base for decades of reworking into attacks on the war on drugs.
We’re seen this Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney musical before, just across Main Street in the Alleyway Theatre in 2006, with Todd Warfield directing.
Warfield is back in the director’s chair again for this production, with 18 years of improvements in theater tech, particularly the use of the giant screen on the back of the stage and the shifting, revolving LED lighting which is standard these days.
The musical is structured as a high school principal, the Lecturer (Nicholas Lama), telling the audience of the dangers of pot and what can happen, saying the show will be what happened in this town as a result of drug use.
That’s high school sweethearts who hang out at the “Ol’ Five and Dime” and dance, Jimmy Harper (Kevin Deese) and Mary Lane (Brooke Leary).
That’s until Jack Stone (Corey Bieber) shows up and invites Jimmy to stop by his place and get some dancing lessons.
If you can’t look at Stone’s makeup and costumes and not think of the devil, you’re not paying attention.
That’s until Lama shows up in his horned devil costume.
Stone runs what seems a cross between a drug house and a brothel and Jimmy falls into the clutches of that devil weed, with the song “Jimmy Takes a Hit,” from Jack and the denizens of the house.
That’s even though the THC content of what he was smoking was pretty minimal, compared to what’s available, publicly and privately, today.
The body count starts to add up, like the pedestrian killed when a stoned Jimmy runs him down, while driving Mary Lane’s car.
Jimmy starts to realize what a mess he’s in, but, in this deep, this formerly star student can’t dump the monkey.
At the same time, the show keeps trending right to the edge of the abyss of snark, leaving only the attitudes clear.
For example, Jimmy with “The Brownie Song.”
Even someone who is deeply opposed to drugs can figure this one out, along with the jokes about “munchies.”
The second act goes more than a little overboard, with Jesus (Bieber) and his angels showing up, flanked by President FDR arriving on Death Row to free Jimmy just before the switch was pulled.
FDR also takes a shot at Daddy Warbucks from “Annie.”
Some of the material is pretty blatant in its criminality, like “The Orgy,” with Deese, Heather Casseri, Goat-Man and the company and Kim Piazza and “The Stuff,” along with Lama and “Down at the Ol’ Five and Dime (Reprise).”
In a continuing pattern in local theater, the cast is filled with new, unfamiliar faces, providing a really good show.
The well-drilled cast nails Timmy Goodman’s choreography, on the relatively small stage, particularly “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy,” “Murder” and “Tell ’Em the Truth.”
Overall, “Reefer Madness The Musical” is funny and well-done and something of a changing of the guard on the local theater scene.
At the same time, there’s a need to be aware of the need for comedy to confront power and show what might be wrong.
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