When Reefer Madness: The Musical is cooking, it cooks. Know Theatre is kick-starting its season with a rowdy, just-for-the-hell-of-it musical that decries (wink, wink) the evils of smoking marijuana.
Thanks to attitude infused by director Eric Vosmeier, Know’s show does it with tongue, teeth and tonsils wedged in its cheek — just as did original productions in Los Angeles (1999) and New York (2001) and a version filmed in 2005. What composer Dan Studney and lyricist Kevin Murphy satirize in their clever songs and campy libretto are hysterical claims of moral degradation and reprehensible behavior — murder, rape, unsafe driving habits, fornication, laughing at inappropriate times — that are said to result from smoking the evil weed and from listening to godless Jazz music created by known smokers. It all started with a schlocky 1936 exploitation film originally titled Tell Your Children. Such low-budget shockers came from independent producers and poverty-row studios.
They shared a sleazy style and a greedy purpose. Choose a controversial topic only whispered about in polite conversation: drugs (Reefer Madness), nudism (10 Days in a Nudist Camp), pre-marital sex and unwed motherhood (Mom & Dad). Seize the moral high ground while whipping up a cautionary tale with lots of shameful behavior and little heed for fact.
Then run the film for years, raking in tons of money from ticket buyers secretly titillated while claiming to be outraged.
When Reefer Madness was rereleased in the 1970s with zero alterations, changing attitudes transformed it from high schlock to low camp. Onstage, the musical’s business is mockery, and much of it is quite good fun. A lecturer (Ty Yadzinski) explains that some Benjamin Harrison High School students have a story to tell, a story of drugs, degradation, murder and redemption. Evil Jack (Fang Du) and reluctant but hooked henchpersons Sally (Jordan Schramka), Mae (Jenny Guy) and Ralph (Babs Ipaye) expose clean-living Jimmy (Daniel Hines) to reefer, and he takes right to it. Sex-crazed as well as weed-hooked, he embarks on a life of crime that includes stealing a car from his girlfriend, Mary (Courtney Brown).
She flirts with reefer and heads for trouble. Whether Jesus (also Fang Du), who comes down from his cross to sing and dance in the show’s beststaged and funniest sequence, can salvage Jimmy’s life must remain the show’s secret to reveal.
Mindy Heithaus, Brian Wylie, Mark Scherer, Sarah Stephens and Ayla Ocasio complete the company. Everyone gives their all, making mock with relish and mostly scoring well — especially Yadzinski, Hines and Ipaye. There being no call for subtlety, none is offered.
Certainly none is missed.Unlike sung-through musical plays such as See What I Want To See and Thrill Me that Know has presented so effectively, Reefer Madness is, behind its mocking attitude, an old-fashioned musical comedy. Stretches of comic dialogue alternate with solos, duets and go-forbroke production numbers, which Liz Vosmeier choreographed and Laura Franzini costumed with a tongue-in-cheek attitude matching the script.
Andrew Hungerford designed and lit properly tacky sets and amusing two-dimensional props. An airplane and a rickshaw are especially effective.
Reefer Madness has some fine moments, especially Hines and Brown’s Romeo and Juliet duet, "Dancing Down at the Ol’ Five and Dime" and the aforementioned "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy." But when high moments end and transitions yawn, the show frazzles. Pace, relentless within numbers, fizzles just when cohesion is most needed.
Reefer Madness: The Musical, presented by Know Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Nov. 14. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.