Satirical cult show challenges modern audiences
By Myron My
Reefer Madness was originally a 1939 film intending to dissuade youth from smoking cannabis and highlighting the risks linked to this “pastime”. In 1999, Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney opened their musical version of the show in Los Angeles and 17 years later it is being presented by RL Productions, and the entire time watching, I’m sorry to confess I just kept wondering – why?
While I understand the tongue-in-cheek humour and the satirical nature of the cult show, I simply cannot find any laughs in rape or domestic violence narratives. I will admit that I am not familiar with the film and unsure to what extent it makes these references, but stating women will be raped if they are stoned and watching a female character being physically and verbally assaulted by a male – and played for laughs – is not on. Yes, you can argue that it was in the musical’s book (from 1999), but these issues are so problematic for today’s audience that I felt this production needs to consider and address this in some way.
It is said that Murphy and Studney wrote the first song for Reefer Madness in under five hours, and for me, it shows. The lyrics are simple and obvious, and many of the songs themselves feel more like filler than actually showing us something more of the characters or situation. So “The Brownie Song”, “Romeo & Juliet “and “Lonely Pew” failed to engage me in any way, but that said, under the able musical direction of David Wisken, there are some great songs in there as well, including “The Orgy” and “Listen To Jesus, Jimmy”, in which the performance by Ed Deganos is just brilliant. The choreography by Yvette Lee is also quite noteworthy here and the use of the ensemble in all the musical pieces is well thought-out.
There are some scenes in Reefer Madness that are genuinely entertaining, such as when Jimmy takes his first hit and the penultimate scene in the reefer den. The intelligent direction by Stephen Wheat and lighting design by Jason Bovaird (in particular during the latter scene) was quite effective in creating some emotion from the drama and chaos that was being acted out.
The entire cast is full of energy and committed to their roles, but with all the characters being very one-dimensional I found myself struggling to care for them. Rosa McCarty however, as Mae, has some great moments on stage and manages to bring life to a character that could easily have become another cliché. James Cutler is also great as The Lecturer, bringing laughs to some very dry material with some comedic good timing and body language.
In 1999 Reefer Madness may have had its cult fans and garnered some favourable critical reviews, but for me, in 2016 – and in Australia – this is just a dated and troubled musical that has no redeeming history or context here. There are certainly some laughs to be had, but I was ultimately left mystified as to the reasons for choosing to put on such a show.