Reviving 'Reefer Madness: The Musical' at L.A.'s Whitley Theater

At the Whitley in Los Angeles

First presented in Los Angeles back in 1998, the theatrical satire Reefer Madness: The Musical, now playing at the Whitley in Hollywood through July 21, is based on the notorious 1936 cult classic propaganda film framed as a lampoonishly harsh lesson about the evils of weed. “Women cry for it… Men die for it!” and “The sweet pill that makes life bitter” were just two of the original taglines on the film’s poster. Through the years, this pop musical spin-off has become a midnight movie audience-participation ritual, achieving for cannabis what Rocky Horror Picture Show did for cross-dressing.

With book and lyrics by Kevin Murphy (known for Heathers: The Musical) and a toe-tapping pop-rock score by Dan Studney, Reefer Madness: The Musical takes the narrative from its breathless predecessor tracing the fall of one Jimmy Harper, a good boy gone bad after coming under the influence of “the stuff.” The role was originally played by Christian Campbell, Neve’s brother and one of the current show’s co-producers along with Alan Cumming and Kristen Bell, who all co-starred in the original play and the 2005 Showtime adaptation.

The new iteration represents the 25th anniversary of the venerable show’s original premiere, with the multi-faceted, Bryan Daniel Porter acing the multi-character Cumming role as the Lecturer, Jack the Dealer, Jesus, Satan and, ultimately a wheelchair-bound President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, brought in to save the hapless Harper from electrocution at the last moment for murdering his girlfriend. The virgin-like Mary Lane (originally portrayed by Bell) is left to the suitable hands of Darcy Rose Byrnes, a triple-threat singer and dancer who, when she smokes a stick of reefer, lets down her waist-length hair and turns into a flashy dominatrix wielding a whip.

Lori Alan, who first starred as evil Jack’s hopelessly addicted moll Mae Coleman in the original Hudson Backstage Theatre show, returns as the unlikely blood-soaked savior (she's Nicole Parker's understudy) while Thomas Dekker has the scene-stealing role of college dropout stoner Ralph, who chops off the head of J. Elaine Marcos’ absent-minded mama Sally De Bain. 

"Reefer Madness: The Musical" stoners: Nicole Parker as Mae and Darcy Rose Byrnes as Mary Lane (photos by Andrew Patino/Ursa Creatives)

The show takes place in a Hollywood Blvd. storefront converted into a 1930’s speakeasy dubbed the Reefer Den, with both seats and tables (food and drinks are ordered via cellphone). The production uses the theater’s two stories to maximum effect with the choreography spilling over into the aisles right in the midst of the audience, keeping the energy in the room “high” all night. The only thing missing was the ability to smoke weed itself, a warning issued by Cumming himself with an audio introduction before the show. The crowd on June 28 included Bell, who discreetly joined in on several choruses, and her friend Angelina Jolie and Jolie and Brad Pitt's daughter Vivienne, who's a big fan of the show.

"Reefer Madness: The Musical" offers a sardonic look at how government and media spin ruins lives.

The musical’s camp sensibility lends to a fun time in a briskly paced 90 minutes. Show-stopping moments include the “Mary Jane/Mary Lane” pas de deux; Alan’s sultry ode to addiction, “The Stuff”; the classic come-hither moment of Christ pulling himself off the cross for “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy”; and the hallucinatory "Brownie Song.” 

The epic finale, “Tell 'Em the Truth,” with characters representing FDR, Uncle Sam, George Washington and Lady Liberty, proved particularly timely given the death-of-democracy Presidential debate the night before. Reefer Madness: The Musical offers a sardonic look at how government and media spin ruins lives, not mari-jew-ana, its long demonization seen through the prism of racial and class prejudice, economic forces and agricultural interests still prevalent even with the current legalization trend. In both the original and its subsequent version, Reefer Madness: The Musical continues to offer a not-so-subtle reminder that the kind of disinformation spoofed is still very much a part of our daily lives. No wonder we light up.



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Roy Trakin

Roy Trakin

Veteran music journalist who writes for Variety, Pollstar and CelebStoner