Reefer Madness fires up at Phoenix Theatre’s Little Theatre

It's a theater critic's job, as he enters a playhouse, to leave at the door any attitudes or preferences he may have about a particular genre of play. Therefore, I abandoned my ennui about camp in the lobby of Nearly Naked Theatre as I headed in to see what they'd done with Reefer Madness, Kevin Murphy's hyper-campy musical based on an anti-drug propaganda film of the 1930s.

I needn't have bothered. Director Damon Dering, who launched Nearly Naked a decade ago, knows a thing or two about resuscitating old genres and about keeping old, tired ones alive. There's nary a scrap of earnestness nor any scrambling for laughs in this frenetic, endlessly entertaining production. Dering simply cranks everything up to full blast — the music, the choreography, and especially the hysterical acting and singing — and shoots it straight into an audience that appeared, on the night I saw the show, to be ready and waiting.

It's Dering's frenetic pacing and clever eye for casting that make something of Reefer Madness, which is little more than another in a long line of clever spoofs based on fringy cult stuff. This one uses Louis Gasnier's 1936 programmer about the evils of marijuana, a little movie so solemn in its dreary denouncement of drug use that it arguably became the first-ever "camp classic," as the excuse for the usual all-stops-out, wink-and-nudge musical mayhem. The setup is simple and very much like tuners you've seen before: A squeaky-clean teen couple falls in with a group of potheads and are punished for daring to swing out a little, a sad fact about which they warble while attempting to kick over their heads. They sing about the evils of addiction ("The Stuff") and corruption ("The Brownie Song") and redemption ("Listen to Jesus, Jimmy") while chorus lines grind and shimmy around them and a leggy thespian marches through with placards warning "Reefer Makes You Giggle for No Reason" and "Reefer Gives You Potty Mouth." Jesus turns up (of course!) to sing about sin and later to be crucified in a kitschy Vegas-style production number, followed by God and George Washington with equally goofball musical messages to impart.

I've seen it all before — probably you have, too — but I was entertained all the same, in good part because the production was so tight and the cast so gifted. As the teens, Kim Jeffries and Joseph Moore make these done-to-death bits about corrupted kids seem somehow new again with big, cheerful vocals and comic timing to rival any vaudevillian's. Beau Heckman makes the most of a pile of comic chorus roles, and Joseph Kremer's turns as a shady dope peddler and a musical theater Christ prove his comic range and winning ability with a silly song. Marijuana madam Laura Webb swipes every scene she shares with drugged-out Laura Anne Kenney and Eric Boudreau, which is saying something, because both these players are excellent.

The audience with whom I saw Reefer Madness was no typical theater crowd. They didn't seem to notice Shawna Quain's imaginative choreography or to care that Mark 4Man's four-piece band played so perfectly. It was clear that this group, which hooted with glee each time an actor sparked up another fake spliff, were there for a rowdy good time, and that they left utterly satisfied. So, against many odds, did I.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela