Reefer Madness is a take-off on a legendary 1930s movie about the dangers of marijuana — a black-and-white film, shadowy and portentous, full of lurid warnings about how dope leads to crime and madness. Now that marijuana clinics are opening all over the state, city councils are discussing zoning far more often than morality and legalization seems just around the corner, this all feels like pretty old stuff and — like the fabled admonition that masturbation causes blindness — makes for a light gigglefest. Still, the easy, sleazy, propagandistic way the script bundles drugs, jazz, socialism, Communism, Darwinism and homosexuality into one huge and unspeakable evil that all good Americans should fear and fight certainly has contemporary echoes.
As the show opens, a Lecturer — played with deliciously oily self-satisfaction by Brandon Bill — is pontificating on the "leafy green assassin." As he does, a group of zombies straight out of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" surge onto the stage, shuffling and gesticulating. But Jimmy and his sweetheart, Mary, are protected by their youthful innocence. They read Shakespeare to each other and marvel at the way their love mirrors the plot of Romeo and Juliet — though not having reached the end, they don't quite know what might be in store for them. In another area of town, there's the den of vice where evil pusher Jack keeps his woman, Mae, in line with carefully doled-out joints and the occasional blow. Here, Sally neglects her baby and sells her body for drugs, and the increasingly crazed Ralph cackles away while feeding his munchies. Jimmy falls for the demon weed. Mary weeps. Jimmy turns to crime. And Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney's musical just keeps rollicking along, going way beyond satire and parody and into the realm of pure lunacy, tossing in murder, cannibalism, the baby sold for weed, a sodomizing Satan and a simpering Jesus who, accompanied by a scantily-clad chorus, remonstrates Jimmy in one of the evening's funniest songs, "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy," and later comes into the audience to hand out morsels and whisper sweetly, "body of me."
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The show's a bit too drawn-out, and the first act is better than the second — though the second, too, has hysterical moments, most notably Mary's sudden turn to the dark side after her first whiff of marijuana, and the grand finale in which everyone agrees to sanitize the country by publicizing the truth about dope, and "taking down the fingerprints/Of jazz musicians and immigrants." A show like this obviously has to be done full-out, and director-choreographer Colin Roybal has assembled a lively, talented cast, whose joyful buoyancy keeps everything afloat. These guys are having such a great time that they simply carry you with them, even though the sound system at the Bug isn't entirely their friend, and the band is sometimes loud enough to muffle the lyrics. Adam Perkes's slimy, slithery Ralph is close to inhuman — something from an alien planet, perhaps — and when he becomes Sally's lost baby and sings "Lullabye," he's horribly, sickeningly sweet. Eric Mather is manic as Jimmy, and you can almost hear Hillary Tae's sigh of relief as she morphs from dear, repressed little Mary into a driven, balls-out dominatrix. Another standout is Celia Jones, camping the hell out of her weary, guilt-ridden, he-hits-me-but-I-love-him den-mother role and bluesily, boozily praising the power of "The Stuff" that enslaved her. If I had to pick a favorite performer, though, it would be Ryan Pace who, amidst all the dizzy shenanigans, quietly underplays the role of Jesus, coming across as gentle, smug and evil all at the same time.
Equinox Theatre Company
Presented by Equinox Theatre Company through September 18, Bug Theater, 3654 Navajo Street, 720-984-0781, www.equinoxtheatredenver.com.
Though there were clearly many stoners in the crowd the night I went, I didn't detect the fumes of devil weed in the clouds of smoke outside the theater after the show. But someone did feel moved to explain to someone else: "My belly button does this weird thing when I lay down," and I wish I'd caught the rest of that conversation.