Hey, dude, Reefer Madness made me high.
No, not like that hazy way in college when the original propaganda film Tell Your Children (1936) was re-released for laughs and everybody got stoned, but a real, true-to-life contact high that is happily shared by everyone in the audience.
The execution: Could this be the best musical so far this season? The bar's been set fairly high after Catastrophic's madcap A Very Tamarie Christmas in July. The standard hit a nadir after Theatre Under the Stars' unmemorable Victor/Victoria, perhaps the most boring show in recent times, but TUTS Underground has not only atoned for that bomb, but soared. Dare I say, TUTS flies high. Oh, the colors! (Sorry, wrong drug.)
Created in those heady years, circa 1998, by college friends and writing partners Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, and continually revised with each incarnation, Reefer Madness is a loosey/goosey, low brow mix of that laughably bad cult movie and every musical on and off the Great White Way that makes fun of the genre and deconstructs the very idea with heaps of irony and pastiche production numbers.
Reefer Madness would not, could not, exist without a slew of forebears, from the obvious, Rocky Horror Picture Show, through Hairspray, Little Miss Sunshine, When Pigs Fly, any episode of Monty Python, or the zombie dance from Michael Jackson's "Thriller." The list is long. There's even a shout out to Oklahoma, through its progenitor, Lynn Rigg's play Green Grow the Lilacs. While inventing some new territory, Madness covers a lot of the old. What this musical has in spades is a tongue planted firmly in cheek.
As a goofy knockoff, there's not much point to it except the dire premonition that smokin' weed, "wake and bake, tea time, to chief out, or rollin' a fat one" leads to the utter degradation of our young 'uns. It's the fast lane to Hell, no doubt about it. Writers Murphy and Studney roll Louis Gasnier's exploitation movie with the most fragrant, thinnest paper imaginable and light up the stage with silly panache. The whole thing is a cartoon, from scenic designer Ryan McGettigan's bright cutout pieces that fly in; costumer Amanda Wolff's Lindy hop dresses and saddle shoes; choreographer Dana Lewis's splashy, energetic '40s-type moves; to the performances. Especially the performances.
Any show that can segue from Jesus rhyming "the Shroud of Turin" with "do I need to test your urine?" to a hellish goat dry humping everyone in sight is either doing something right, or doing something sublimely wrong. Whatever, the laughs come fast and furious. The game cast gives their all.
As the innocents gone bad, Sean McGee and Taylor Beyer are picture perfect, then even more perfect when they go to seed, instantly hopped up and weirdly mad. The bad guys are comically depraved as only over-the-top molls and dealers can be in musicals. Nick Henderson, truly wicked as dealer Jack from hell, with a voice that comes direct from a stone's heart, morphs into a Vegas Christ straight out Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, in gold loincloth and greasy blond wig to sing his hard rock "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy." He grabs the stage and doesn't let go.
Denizens of the disreputable house on Elm Street where small town youth go to ruin, Mae, Ralph, and Sally, richly enacted by actors Kristin Warren, Mark Ivy, and Brooke Wilson, lounge, have sex, and incessantly smoke week, usually at the same time. In a delightful showstopping number, Ivy, as Sally's abandoned baby, pops up behind the sofa to croon "Lullaby." In hoody pajamas, with full beard, and using a doll's arms to caress his face, this throwaway bit is added proof of the show's inventive looniness.
Special instances of clever stagecraft pop up repeatedly, thanks to the whirligig direction from Bruce Lumpkin. He keeps this show dancing in wondrously showbiz ways. The microphone during the faux Andrews Sisters harmony number which opens Act II, "Jimmy on the Run," is labeled WTHC. If you know your drug culture, you laugh before the song begins.
Tying the show together in prodigious fashion is pompous "narrator" Dylan Godwin, showcased in multiple roles as narcotics enforcer, that randy goat, FDR, malt shop owner, and other disguises. He's an ideal song-and-dance man, one strut ahead, the highest high-kicker, and happy to be here.
The hard working ensemble of druggies, angels, and malt shop kids consists of Tyce Green, Brittany Halen, Heather Hall, Jessica Janes, Cole Ryden, Christina Stroup, Holland Vavra, and Robin van Zandt. They sing, dance, and act like the real troopers they so assuredly are.
A veritable anachronistic pastiche, the song styles include bebop, '40s jive, rock and roll, and Broadway ballads. Whatever their merits, they work in the context of the show, and the numbers are far more alive and sparkly than those faceless duds from Victor/Victoria. The lyrics, sometimes tasteless and untactful, are always clever and nevertheless make us laugh, not an easy task for any musical.
The verdict: When I left the Hobby Center, the sky over Houston and the downtown buildings looked painted and flat, unreal. What was that haze inside the theater that made me want to walk on air? Anybody got a light?
Reefer Madness continues through October 5 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at tutsunderground.com or call 713-558-8887 $25-$49.
A note: The sadness person in all this mayhem is Reefer Madness movie director, Louis Gasnier, whose work began in the nascent French film industry, pre-WWI, where he directed hundreds of movies, now entirely lost. He discovered legendary comic Max Linder, a huge influence on Chaplin, and when Pathe Films opened shop in Fort Lee, New Jersey - yes, America's first Hollywood was located in the pine forests off the Hudson River - Gasnier headed up their American division. He had a huge success with the international smash serial, The Perils of Pauline starring Pearl White (1914), but when the movie industry began consolidating smaller production houses, the financial strain of production and distribution ground him down. He went bankrupt more often than not, had a stint at Paramount when sound came in in the late '20s, but never again got the break he deserved. He found work in the studios on Hollywood's Poverty Row, directing Tell Your Children for Grand National Films, which foreclosed in 1939. He resumed his acting career, and took uncredited roles in movies for the rest of his life. He died in 1963, broke and forgotten, never realizing his retitled Reefer Madness would become the stoner cult classic of all time.
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