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THEATRE PREVIEW: Reefer Madness

Little Puff of Horrors: Don't deny the power of Reefer Madness

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Reefer Madness
Produced by Midtown-Sheri Grace Productions
Jan. 29 and Feb. 5, 8 p.m.
Jan. 30-31, Feb. 6-7, 10 p.m.
$16-$23
Theatre 99
280 Meeting St.
(843) 853-6687
www.etix.com

The defining elements of musical comedy haven't changed much over the years: memorable tunes, spiffy dance numbers, snappy dialogue, and a box-office formula that chugged along reliably for 100 years.

It took the rise of rock musicals in the '70s and some racy, campy satire to pull musical comedy out of its formulaic funk. The Rocky Horror Show became a cult classic. But even Rocky couldn't claim the charming pedigree of Reefer Madness.

Financed by a church group, Tell Your Children was the original title of the 1936 film intended to warn young people of the horrors awaiting them if they succumbed to cannabis. The film calls the evil weed "an unspeakable scourge" and "worse than Communism."

Not long after the movie was completed, however, producer Dwain Esper bought it, inter-cut some extra-lurid shots, renamed it Reefer Madness and tossed it out on the exploitation film circuit. Madness had it all. Moviegoers watched kids get addicted to "the stuff" and give in to "drug-crazed abandon." Theft, sex, vehicular manslaughter, gun-toting murder, and heck! — why not a soupçon of zombified cannibalism? Oh, yeah!

Rediscovered in 1971, Reefer Madness became a college campus hit, widely admired for its B-movie production value, campy overacting, and over-the-top storyline.

In 1998, writers Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney seized on the idea of revamping it as a musical which then went on to garner several awards and became a film once again in 2005 when Showtime produced it.

How did it arrive in Charleston? "I went to Blockbuster and found the Showtime musical," says director Ryan Ahlert. "Halfway through, I thought — 'We have got to do this show!'" "We" is he and Sheri Grace-Wenger, who is producing the show at Theatre 99.

"What I love about this show," Grace says, "is the whole idea of making fun of propaganda that's telling you what you should think, what you should do. But what really sold me is the music and the dialogue. Really well-written music and the show's so funny."

For his part, Ahlert, who's performed in the musicals Clue and Little Shop of Horrors, says he's "always been drawn to quirky musicals." And he's pulling double duty on this production. Although it wasn't his original plan, he'll be directing and performing in the dual role of Jack/Jesus. Which, Ahlert happily acknowledges, means that he gets to perform one of his favorite numbers in Madness, "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy."

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

As the musical opens, we find cheerful, well-adjusted teens Jimmy (Theatre 99's Dana Mitchell) and Mary (Anna Kristin McKown), sharing hot cocoa at the five and dime. They have no idea that Mary Jane will soon bulldoze their all-American dreams. The Lecturer (Brandon Joyner), ably-assisted by Placard Girl (Laura King), knows exactly what's in store, but alas, only the audience is let in on it.

They also give us our first glimpse of the Reefer Den where Mae (Kathy Summer) and her unscrupulous boyfriend Jack (Ryan Ahlert) sell weed and host drug-addled addicts like Sally (Rachel Hedrick) and Ralph (Robbie Thomas), whose lives have been shattered by "marihuana."

It won't be long before Jimmy becomes a permanent fixture at the Reefer Den ("Jimmy Takes a Hit"). Things really hit the skids after that (see above-referenced sex, murder, etc.). While originally intended to be a real downer and a cautionary tale, something about spontaneously bursting into uproarious song-and-dance really takes the edge off. Robbi Kenney leads the five-piece live band.

For director Ahlert, bringing the show to Charleston is also a welcome opportunity to work with "a great cast of physical comedians, friends of mine from college, and a bunch of new people." Among the new people, Laura King, a financial analyst and former Marine with two tours of duty in Iraq, makes her debut with this show.

Talk about a long, strange trip.

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