Reefer Madness, as you might guess, is a musical that focuses in on the depravities inevitably ensuing from any contact with the dreaded weed. Structurally akin to The Rocky Horror Show, in having a roundly enunciating narrator (no less than 73-year-old-but-betraying-it Barry Crocker), it borrows, begs and steals musical nuances from a wide variety of sources: one might be put in mind of Sondheim, Rodgers & Hammerstein or even klezmer.
But that's academic and not instrumental, if you'll pardon the pun, in putting the show across.
In essence, it's silly and, in the second half, in which it substantially loses any real semblance of plot, almost utterly, resplendently, anarchically ludicrous. Nonetheless, it does manage to make a mockery of the kind of finger-wagging, know-what's-good-for-us authority figures and Nazi (or, at least Nasty) columnists and shockjocks, known by sadomasochistic names like Bolt & Ball, who pontificate, while standing in hobnail boots upon a thin veneer of moral ice, on, say, what is or isn't art. In this case, the magnifying-glass is set to incinerate, like the dried-up old leaves they are, those North American forefathers who've sought to pin every degradation ever perpetrated, or thereabouts, on poor, old Mary-Jane. This, by way of Brad & Janet-style innocents, childhood sweethearts, Jimmy and Mary Lane. Their seeming incorruptibility is torn down, wrecked and raped, by their first puff of dope. This leads to a mayhem of debauchery, crime and final, Shakespearean tragedy. Happily, Jesus relents on relegating the deflowered Mary to hell, taking her even higher than she was before.
The tongue never leaves the cheek and while not as uproariously or consistently hilarious as the laugh of the tall man in the front row might've indicated, it is amusing and as pokingly good fun as, well, Reefer itself. It serves to prod and provoke the naysayers and farts of past and present, who've no power to make our lives longer, but who threaten only, through their prohibitions, to make them seem longer, as we wait quietly and obediently, for the reaper. So, for all you Dylan Thomas diehards who want to rage against the machine and go not gently into that good night, Reefer is the antidotal medicine you're looking for!
In the end, this isn't so much a brilliant musical (it's highly entertaining, but seriously flawed) as astonishingly slick production: I can't bring to mind an aspect of it for any degree of negative criticism. God knows, I've tried!
Jay James-Moody, who also stars (indeed, for my money, he was one of, if not the standout, as both actor and singer, especially his baby character), deserves plaudits for sewing it all together, ably assisted by Alex Wallace; all the harder when you're performing as well. Chris King, musical director, also does a sterling job: the band was so tight and on it we hardly knew they were there. Joanne Gilmour, equally, has devised punchy choreography, with just the right balance of routine and freedom. Her dancers, too were extraordinary. Michael Smith lighting design was, well, sound; costumes by Penelope Parsons-Lord imaginative, if not downright inspired. Hair & makeup, by Leslea Clements, iced the cake sweetly. Nikki Sundstrum much more than barely stage-manages.
It should all put a big smile on the face of producer, Jessica Burns. Then again, that might be the reefer.
But let's not forget the cast, which includes Burns herself, as girl-next-door-turned-whore, Mary Lane (I have to confess I found her singing voice a little searing); Emily Cascarino (sultry seductress, Sally), Andrew Cook, Brad Facey (excellent, as wide-eyed Jimmy), Lucas Hall, Katie Headrick, the aforementioned Jay-James, Sophia Katos, Richard Lovegrove (as smalltime dealer, Jack Stone, but, better yet, as a vainglorious Jesus), Belinda Morris (as his addicted prey, Mae Coleman) and Celeste O'Hara.
The frightening backstory is, RM isn't merely a generic allusion to anally-fixated white men in starched shirts, but a reference to a real propaganda film, from 1936. Seems fascism was everywhere.
But, lest ye be tempted by da ganja, heed these sage words from JC: 'I floated down from heaven, when I heard a lamb had strayed; look at you, Jim, your brain has turned to marmalade; I'm here to help you, Jimmy, and return you to the fold; try filling your lungs with God, and not Jamaican gold'.
I think there's something in that for all of us. Well, some of us. Just like the musical.
One thing's for sure, that advice beats the hell out of the dire warnings wafting out of the mid-30s US, like so much dopey smoke: the sweet 'pill', that makes life bitter! Praise be to the Lord what was intended for parents to tell their children and financed by a church-group, was quickly exploited, comedically, by opportunistic producer, Dwain Esper, which found its audience, finally, in the 70s, among, presumably, a rather large, off-its-face viewership.
By Kevin Murphy & Dan Studney
Venue: Cleveland Street Theatre | 199 Cleveland St Surry Hills
Dates: 24 July to 16 August 2008
Times: Wed-Sat 8pm Sun 5pm
Tickets: Fri – Sun $48 / $44 conc; Mid Week all tix $38 (Wed & Thur shows)
Bookings: Ticketmaster Ph 136 100 or online www.ticketmaster.com.au