Scent of Marijuana Wafts Toward Evil

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Oct 8, 2001.

  1. By Ben Brantley
    Source: New York Times

    According to recent reports, irony is finished in American pop culture. Then again, even more recent reports suggest that irony has already managed a furtive comeback. There is yet further evidence, however, to be found at the Variety Arts Theater, that at least one extreme form of the ironic arts — its flashiest and silliest incarnation, known as camp — is indeed ready for last rites.
    This latest source of speculation on the fate of arch exaggeration and talking in quotation marks is an industriously ineffective musical, "Reefer Madness."

    It officially — and, if you must, ironically — opened last night in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood where theatrical camp came to flower most lavishly.

    Created by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, the show takes off from the 1936 movie of the same title, a lurid, low-budget tract film on the menace of marijuana, a substance promised to drive clean-living youth to promiscuity, murder and insanity. Several decades after its release it was made a cult classic by college and midnight movie audiences around the same time Bob Dylan was singing, "Everybody must get stoned."

    Viewed through eyes blurred by no substance stronger than cough syrup, the film is still mildly diverting, with its censorious, bespectacled narrator and its scenes showing wholesome high-school students transformed into monsters by a single puff. It even has a weird, sort of Expressionist power in its mad, jerky party scenes. But its humor, especially for head-movie fans, has always been in its somber, tabloid-style hyperbole.

    The creators of the musical version of "Reefer Madness," which itself became a cult hit in Los Angeles several years ago, have simply decided to exaggerate the exaggerations. The excesses to which marijuana smokers are prone now include cannibalism, heavy-duty sado-masochism and orgiastic epiphanies, alternately starring a goatlike Satan and Jesus.

    Our first vision of this dangerous tribe presents its members as something like the resurrected corpses from the Michael Jackson video for "Thriller." They even do the same air-clawing dance steps, courtesy of the pop star Paula Abdul, the show's choreographer and another 1980's icon. Obviously this "Reefer Madness," while still set in the 1930's, has a wide embrace of references.

    This wouldn't be a problem if the show had a pointed style of its own à la the musical version of "The Little Shop of Horrors," which would appear to be the model for "Reefer Madness." But the tone of both Mr. Studney's score and Kevin Murphy's lyrics meanders hazily, from swing jauntiness and "Grease"-style doo- wop to film noir jazz and flavorless mock ballads. Under the frenzied direction of Andy Fickman, a lot of the old camp tricks emerge, the pop- eyed poses of hysteria and blatantly fake slaps and punches.

    The over-the-top production numbers include a Las Vegas-style appearance by a smarmy Jesus (Robert Torti) and the inevitable (if ill- timed) mock patriotic red-white- and-blue finale. Actually the Jesus in the Las Vegas number is pretty funny, thanks to Mr. Torti's self-infatuated smile and deadpan timing.

    So is a simulated nude sequence, which evokes the arty eroticism of the Denishawn dance era. But mostly "Reefer Madness" is merely frantic, throwing out one overwrought gimmick after another in the hopes that one will eventually land somewhere.

    The cast is chockablock with mostly wasted talent, and it includes the very talented musical veterans Gregg Edelman as the evangelical narrator and Michele Pawk, as the Joan Crawfordesque den mother to a clan of potheads. Christian Campbell and Kristen Bell pump lots of cheerful energy into representing traditional ingénue eye candy.

    Mr. Torti, who plays both Jesus and the show's dapper villain, works comic wonders with his arrogant grin and frozen, cock-of-the-walk stances. He's a testament to the virtues of overstated understatement. But at more than two hours, the show's tasty morsels are disproportionately few.

    Traditionally the joke of camp has been that it comes from sources (movies like "Imitation of Life," Wagnerian operas) that take themselves with passionate seriousness. Successful camp — whose great practitioners have ranged from Carol Burnett to Charles Ludlam — can hew closely to the style of what it parodies or spin off into wilder variations. But there has to be a direct line to and affinity for the original sensibility.

    The approach of "Reefer Madness," and this includes the baroquely seedy set by Walt Spangler and costumes by Dick Magnanti, is so catch-all that it suffocates on its own bloatedness.

    A scantily clad usherette regularly sashays across the stage, bearing placards with grim admonitions. One of them reads, "Reefer makes you giggle — for no good reason!" The show's creators have obviously hoped to create a similar effect without artificial stimuli, but the natural highs are few.


    Book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney; lyrics by Mr. Murphy; music by Mr. Studney. Directed by Andy Fickman; choreography by Paula Abdul; sets by Walt Spangler; lighting by Robert Perry; costumes by Dick Magnanti; sound by Lew Mead; fight director, Rick Sordelet; musical direction, David Manning; orchestrations by Nathan Wang and David Manning; production managers, Dominic Housiaux and Kai Brothers; stage manager, Richard Druther. Presented by James L. Nederlander and Verna Harrah, in association with Nathaniel Kramer and Terry Allen Kramer and Dead Old Man Productions. At the Variety Arts Theater, 110 Third Avenue, at 13th Street, East Village.

    WITH: Gregg Edelman (Lecturer), Christian Campbell (Jimmy), Kristen Bell (Mary), Robert Torti (Jack/Jesus), Michele Pawk (Mae), Erin Matthews (Sally), Roxane Barlow (Placard Girl) and John Kassir (Ralph).

    Source: New York Times (NY)
    Author: Ben Brantley
    Published: October 8, 2001
    Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
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