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Reefer Madness Is Back

reefer madness musical
PHOTOS Courtesy of Reefer Madness


Reefer Madness Is Back

The cult classic, now being retold as a musical, premiered May 30 in Hollywood and will run through July 21.

On Thursday, May 30, the revival of Reefer Madness: The Musical debuted at The Whitley in Hollywood. The musical, based on a 2005 TV movie, based on a 1998 musical, based on a 1936 church-funded propaganda film of the same name, features Inception-levels of satire. The plot of the original exploitation film follows quite closely to the bombastic parody it has become—only, now featuring a personified weed brownie waxing poetic about its own deliciousness.

Writing partners Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney first crafted the show while driving from Oakland to Los Angeles to the tune of Frank Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage.” When the two started quipping about how they would stage a jukebox musical of the album, the much-beguiled text of their youth, Reefer Madness, came to mind. By the time they touched down in LA, they had already written the opening song.

Once the duo completed the script, they approached director Andy Fickman, who took on the project with glee. The play opened in Los Angeles to packed houses for a run of over a year and a half, amassing many awards in the process. When the two adapted the script for the Showtime movie in 2005, they added an Emmy for Outstanding Music & Lyrics to their collection.

Our story follows well-to-do kids Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane (yes, the allusion is intentional) and their descent into the mad, depraved world of the devil’s lettuce.

The revival comes at the behest of producers Kristen Bell and Alan Cumming, two of the stars of the show’s screen adaptation. While Cumming was not in attendance (great news for fans of The Traitors), Bell arrived with a slew of stars, including Angelina Jolie, Mario Lopez, Neve Campbell, Andrew Rannells, and Chris Colfer—to name a few.

The night also drew the attention of the Gay Walk of Fame that exists only in my dreams. Fin Argus told me they would love to share a nightmarish trip smoking with their method actor character from The Other Two while Matt Rogers emphasized the importance of Brittany Cauchi (née Cartwright) from The Valley taking a toke or two. Laganja Estranja and I also weighed the pros and cons of adding Bob Fosse to a dream blunt rotation.

Once I got Bell’s ear, I asked her how her relationship with cannabis has changed now versus the show’s inception 26 years ago.

“When I first got to college, I discovered smoking weed,” she began. “Since then, I haven’t really partaken, but I have no problem with people doing it, and based on what I’ve seen, it seems to be a lot safer of a substance than alcohol.”

She then shared the inspiration behind re-introducing this piece to a modern audience hungry for cannabis reform.

“I was very excited when I saw big portions of the country being like, ‘Wait a minute—is this really that bad, or were we fed a false bill of goods?’ I think the show is so important because it’s asking you to use critical thinking. Your answer might still be the same, but your answer might be different. It encourages freedom of thought and the idea that we can’t run around like sheep.”

For kicks, I asked her which of the characters she’s played is the biggest stoner and she quickly replied, “Eleanor Shellstrop, no contest.”

Opening Night

After the carpet, my guest and I entered the Victory Garden: a cocktail reception area complete with themed drinks, passed apps and plenty of plant-based offerings—from a chocolate fountain flowing with melted Kiva bars to a dompen branded exclusively for the show.

As we entered the playhouse, it was clear that this would not be a one-stage performance. We were ushered to our seats—a makeshift bar on the right side of the room. We were informed these were “experiential,” meaning we would be escorted to a different area during the show to use the bar set. Although we agreed, they didn’t tell us where we would be guided to…more on that later.

The show begins with the horrifying cackling of a strung-out maniac, who we later learn to be Ralph (Thomas Dekker). The lecturer/narrator (Bryan Daniel Porter) then begins the titular song, “Reefer Madness,” warning concerned parents about the harms of marihuana—“Mexican,” he clarifies—as the cast’s impeccably scene-stealing ensemble (Andre Aultmon, Claire Crause, Alex Tho, Jane Papageorge) enact what the “hooligans and whores” are up to.

We then meet the show’s leads—Jimmy Harper (Anthony Norman) and Mary Lane (Darcy Rose Byrnes). Byrnes’ waist-long hair and cherub-like cheeks give credence to her goody-two-shoes characterization, but her clear-as-a-bell soprano tone and seemingly effortless gait truly bring Mary to life. “Romeo & Juliet” introduces this talent beautifully; there was a tangible sense of awe in the air after Byrnes’ first refrain of the song’s signature “Shakespeare!” line.

Once inside the notorious reefer den with dealer Jack (Porter) and his bride Mae (Nicole Parker), we’re introduced to the show’s main conflict: Jack and his reefer’s control over those around him. Parker’s Broadway chops are evident in her showcase number “The Stuff,” wherein she rhapsodizes about how she just can’t escape the abuse.

After this number, my guest and I were taken out of the show… literally. Members of the cast led us by the hand, out of our chairs and onto the couch Mae had just draped herself over on the main stage. As someone who left her acting career on the stage at the Delaware Children’s Theatre, I sheepishly relished in the stares as everyone was sure we would be involved again somehow. We weren’t until Jesus hit on me (all in good fun, of course).

A Fresh Take

The score is one area in which this revival truly differentiates itself from its previous iterations. As Jimmy takes his first hit and descends into an orgy, we’re treated to a thoroughly modern soundscape of electronica illustrated by neon, animal print bikinis.

The show’s comedic peak is with “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy” as the son of God rips himself off a cross and emerges in full garb, convincing Jimmy to return to his Mary Lane and her lonely pew. The most memorable musical piece comes soon after, with Byrnes’ addicting tone showcased on “Mary Jane/Mary Lane.” While this showing featured no intermission, this is typically the conclusion of Act One.

When we return for “The Brownie Song”, the show’s highly campy sense of humor sometimes hit a bit too goofy—there was an in-show, tongue-in-cheek advertisement for the night’s sponsor Kiva, wherein the narrator told us these were the “most potent” of edibles, after “having done extensive research himself.”

After Mary breaks bad in “Mary Sunshine,” complete with some delightfully BDSM-coded costuming, we’re a bit lost in the goofs again.

There was an overly-cutesy gay joke gone too far, wherein Norman breaks character as Jimmy and the house lights come up when a fellow cellmate touches his leg and offers him a kiss, protesting that “he didn’t do that in rehearsal” followed by “that part doesn’t even make sense—who ever heard of a fella kissing another fella?” Byrnes comes out in a robe and hair turban, arguing that he’s ruining this for her, before we’re transported back into the story.

Why Now?

The show’s final number, “Tell ‘Em the Truth,” fully cements the messaging of this bombastic parody. If the references to the other dredges of society (besides the reefer-addled) like communists, socialists and immigrants in other numbers were too subtle, FDR, George Washington and Lady Liberty join us to ridicule fear-driven group think with the harmonized verse “Our children teeter on the brink, we need to teach them what to think.”

Obviously, this message remains relevant in a remarkable and devastating number of ways, and at this rate, will likely continue to be until our society’s inevitable collapse.

The closing lyrics of the show ring true to a myriad of modern parallels to the cultural issues we face today.

“Once the reefer has been destroyed, we’ll start on Darwin and Sigmund Freud, and sex depicted on celluloid, and communists and queens. When danger’s near, exploit their fear, the end will justify the means.”

After the experience, I felt as though I should’ve been branded with a red lipstick “V” on my forehead upon entry. The heart and talent at the center of the performances brings the script to life for an experience that could easily become a stoner tradition as true as midnight viewings of The Big Lebowski.

To learn more and get tickets to the show (including access to the Victory Garden and brunch service on weekends), visit

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