One of the reasons the film Reefer Madness (1936) is a cult classic is its wooden acting. But its strange tone also is a product of its disingenuous purpose. Reefer Madness was a grindhouse film from the early era of the Motion Picture Production Code, which determined what was morally permissible in films. The best way to sneak lurid content into a film was to package it as an "educational" warning about the dangers of, say, marijuana, unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. It was essentially an exploitation film, not a poorly made public service warning.
The musical version of Reefer Madness was created in the late 1990s, after the anti-drug fervor of Ronald Reagan-era "Just Say No" messages and well before the current move toward pot legalization in some states. Ampersand Productions' version of the musical at Mid-City Theatre is light summer fun. It delivers some zany musical numbers, including one with a scantily clad full cast dancing in grass skirts with marijuana leaves strategically placed like fig leaves for a lampooned suggestion of modesty. Unfortunately, the show rarely delivers the madness the title promises.
The story focuses on a bright high school student, Jimmy (Tony Coco), who samples pot and quickly abandons everything he cares about to buy more weed and have sex with a woman who hangs out at a marijuana den. He betrays his wholesome sweetheart Mary Lane (Linsey Shubert), and the plot follows his struggle to choose between her and the herb.
An onstage narrator (Nick Giardina) guides the audience through the story, but his mock seriousness is never alarming. The songs and plot suggest Jimmy's life is going to hell, but the acting and choreography don't conjure a sense of menace or a sinister edge, comic or straight, to match the hyperbole.
There are some good solos, notably by Shubert and Allee Peck, but the best numbers are the ensemble extravaganzas. Actors costumed as giant pot leaves dancing through the aisles are funny, but the hallucination bits need a few more tokes to reach trippy abandon. Mary's stoned diversion into sexual experimentation could have been smoother, but it got tied up with props and awkward positions.
The show's best moments are its over-the-top flourishes. A short song about child abandonment ("Lullaby") is hilariously sad and creepy. A slapstick gag in a bloody revenge scene provides a great point of gratuitous indulgence. On the underrealized side, however, a few props, including a ticket booth and handwritten newspaper front page, were so poorly rendered that they were distracting.
The show isn't a bad trip, but stronger prescriptions are now available in many states, and that's what the doctor should have ordered.