The pusherman will be returning to the City Stage theater off Front Street this weekend, as Cape Fear Theatre Arts opens the musical satire “Reefer Madness.” Based on the 1930’s propoganda film—originally produced by a church as a forewarning to teenagers and families of the dangers of pot use—the cult-classic represents all the makings of a cultural phenomenon. It’s hard to believe, considering the recreation legalization of the drug in two states in 2014, that this film once was a serious attempt to scare youth into walking the “right path.” Dwain Esper must have agreed, as he bought its rights and watched it take off as an exploitation flick in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In the ‘70s it garnered another uplift in audience thanks to cannabis policy reform.
Like the numerous cheesy educational films from 50 years ago, wrought with misinformation, overly serious tones, and atrocious believability, “Reefer Madness” evolved perfectly into a campy musical in 1998. With book and lyrics by Kevin Murphy and music by Dan Studney, it opened in LA before moving to Off-Broadway in the early aughts for a brief run. Now owned by Rodgers and Hammerstein Theatricals, the show quickly has gained as much notoriety as that of “Rocky Horror,” “Hairspray,” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Last produced locally in 2007, City Stage welcomes back director Mike O’Neil to again guide a slew of upright students from Benjamin Harrison High School to re-enact the evils that prevail from “mara-ha-wana.” O’Neil chose to stick to the original era of the show, 1936.
“With the exception of anachronistic music numbers, along with some modern gestures and a phrase or two, we keep it placed in its time,” he says.
The Depression era boasted parlor and board games, listening to baseball on the radio, and church as wholesome behavior among youth and families. “Reefer Madness” devolves into the corruption of morality once introducing the after-effects of dope (sex, murder, cannibalism), which propel the show’s many laughs. It touts a cartoonish, exaggerated foray into smoking herb. O’Neil says because the high-school students are doing a dramatization of the tale, the show need not be shining with professionalism.
“It needs to look like it was cobbled together by an earnest community theater company,” he explains. “While the subject matter may be important to them, this is something they created by hand. These people are putting on a show, and the set, furnishings, props, and even the style of acting reflect this.”
O’Neil has brought in the help of new designers to set the show apart from its previous run. Fresh eyes consist of Troy Rudeseal, Terry Collins, and Scenic Asylum in set design, with costuming by Isabel Zermani and lighting by Dallas LaFon.
Though the cast of the play must remain amateur onstage, they’re certainly not in real life. O’Neil has pulled from a vat of well-known and talented local thespians. Sam Robison will reprise his role as the young, naive Jimmy.
“Jimmy is pure,” Robison says. “When he’s good, he’s the most innocent, sweet guy in the world. And when he goes bad, he’s straight up 1930s’ gangster bad. As for the fictional actor [he plays]—Jimmy’s a really, really bad actor. And he’s really, really proud of it.”
Playing Robison’s love interest is Caitlin Becka, who takes on Mary Lane. It’s Becka’s first time doing the musical, one she’s dreamt of since college. “At her essence, Mary’s just a teenage girl falling in love for the first time,” she explains. “She’s a ton of enthusiasm and innocence all wrapped up in a pink bow.”
One of the elements adding to the kids’ demise includes dancing. Amber Adams has choreographed the show, and hones a parodic tone through the swing era. “I had to consider each number as individual entities woven together with movement themes,” she says. “For instance, you’ll see quality zombies (a clean stylized swing number), an orgy number that plays on themes of the orient and sexualized yoga movement, and a cheesy pop number featuring Jesus.”
Adams has created over-the-top kickline, partnering, and Fosse jazz moves. She wanted to focus on absurdist themes, which mimics the cast’s hysterical unraveling.
Again taking lead on the keys will be Cape Fear Theatre Arts’ musical director Chiaki Ito, who’s overseeing Rob Murphrey (drums), Nick Loeber (bass), Mike Buckley (guitar) and Pedro Esparza (reeds). Folks will find a romp in songs like “The Orgy” and “Mary Jane/Mary Lane.” “I like that it combines all different kinds of music from rock, disco, and jazz to classical—yes, classical,” Ito notes.
Working among such a professional crew has been one of the most gratifying experiences for Becka. Filling out the cast are Adam Poole (Jack/Jesus), Anothony Lawson (the Lecturer), Katherine Vernon (Mae), Paul Teal (Ralph), Rachael Sutton (Sally), and Anna Gamel (Placard Girl).
“They give me such crazy, fun vibes to work with and off of,” Becka explains. “My biggest challenge thus far has been matching that intense energy while still honoring the character’s sincerity. I’m hoping that come performance time, that sweetness will shine through.”
The show pulls direct dialog and scenes from the movie. It also teases with a slew of themes which affect on the human condition. “[It] pokes at xenophobia, jingoism, racism, those who blindly follow authority, the irrational fears some have of anyone or anything they find different or don’t understand, and the willfully ignorant,” O’Neil states.
“Reefer Madness” will open Thursday night and run every weekend through March 30th.
March 6-9, 14-16, 21-23 & 28-30, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinee, 3 p.m.
City Stage • 21 N Front Street