Theater Review: REEFER MADNESS (The Whitley in Hollywood)

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by Tony Frankel on June 29, 2024

in Theater-Los Angeles


No doubt spurred by William Randolph Hearst’s yellow-journalism against pot (he invested in wood-pulp newsprint because he didn’t want paper made from hemp), a church group in 1936 sponsored a film aimed at warning young people about the dangers of marijuana. One of the worst films ever made, Reefer Madness is a cheesy combination of over-the-top acting by Hollywood bit players with laughable production values. The film was soon forgotten until it was discovered in the Library of Congress in 1971. It went into re-release as a gag event for pot smokers and rapidly became an underground cult classic for the college midnight movie crowd. (The public domain film, which can be streamed online, was distributed by the then nascent New Line Cinema and its founder Robert Shaye, bankrolling the company with over $2 million; subsequent distributions [Pink FlamingosGet Out Your Handkerchiefs] led to Shaye’s foray into producing, namely Nightmare on Elm Street.)

Thomas Dekker, Claire Crause, Jane Papageorge, Bryan Daniel Porter, Alex Tho,
Anthony Norman, J. Elaine Marcos, Andre Joseph Aultmon, Nicole Parker

In 1998, Kevin Murphy (book and lyrics) and Dan Studney (music) adapted the unintentionally campy film into a musical satire that opened at L.A.’s own Hudson Theatre, moved to Off-Broadway, and became a made-for-television film in 2005. Now, thanks to producers Christian Campbell, Kristen Bell (from the original production) and Alan Cumming, director/choreographer Spencer Liff, and one of the most rip-roaring casts on any L.A. stage, Reefer Madness has returned for the first time in 25 years to where it all began: Hollywood. Playing at Mae’s Reefer Den, a 1930s-era speakeasy (a.k.a. The Whitley) with a red-hot house band led by David Lamoureux, this engaging, immersive production (trimmed down to a 90-minute one act with additional songs and material by the original creative team) is an absolute hoot and easily one of the most unique theater outings anywhere. While I suspect the run will be extended (or even open up in other cities), you are encouraged to attend post-haste.

Alex Tho
Thomas Dekker, Darcy Rose Byrnes

Reefer Madness tells the cautionary tale of how marijuana smoking led wholesome teenager Jimmy Harper into a spiral of degradation that leads to tragedy, an electric chair, and even the intervention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The narrative starts out in 1938 as a show within a show, with a grim lecturer standing at a podium. He’s there to warn us that marijuana smoking threatens the youth of America and steps must be taken, or our society is doomed. Periodically a chorus girl displays moralizing placards carrying slogans that stress the pitfalls of marijuana.

Bryan Daniel Porter

At the center of the story are two innocent star high school students from very conservative families. We first meet the 16 year olds as they compare themselves to Romeo and Juliet while praising the writing of Shakespeare. Triple-threat performer Anthony Norman (Dear Evan Hansen tour at the Ahmanson) is Jimmy Harper and Darcy Rose Byrnes is the lovely Mary Lane (there is even a song titled “Mary Jane/Mary Lane” that pokes fun at her).

Darcy Rose Byrnes, Jane Papageorge, Thomas Dekker, Claire Crause
Alex Tho, Darcy Rose Byrnes, Bryan Daniel Porter, Andre Joseph Aultmon, Claire Crause

Their conservative beliefs and naive ideals will be compromised when Jimmy meets Jack, the local drug-pusher based at Mae’s Reefer Den. There he reluctantly accepts a marijuana cigarette, and after one puff he’s a goner; the rest of the story recounts his descent into a doper’s hell. Jack and his minions represent the evils of  pot at their most extravagant, portrayed in phantasmagorical dance numbers and some hilarious gross-out scenes that demonstrate just how low marijuana can bring a human being. Later, after the teens consume edibles, “The Brownie Song” comically acknowledges they are on a very different path, and Byrnes’s riotous transformation from “Little Mary Sunshine” to a whip-cracking dominatrix — perhaps not totally unexpected but a true comic highlight of the show. Mr. Norman is the real deal as a lad who plummets from wide-eyed sweetness to a human ruin. He’s on stage nearly the entire show and he nails it.

Darcy Rose Byrnes, Bryan Daniel Porter, Anthony Norman
Thomas Dekker, Darcy Rose Byrnes

In quick-change outfits by Pinwheel Pinwheel, most of the performers play multiple roles, none more effective than character-shifter Bryan Daniel Porter as Jack, the lecturer and an abundance of subsidiary characters, including Jesus. Thomas Dekker steals the spotlight as drugged-out Ralph Wiley (resembling Beetlejuice on a very bad day), who befriends Jimmy and Sally in the den. Other permanent residents there include its manager, the whacked-out addicted-to-the-stuff Mae (Nicole Parker), whose backbone is easily manipulated by the ever-joint-pushing Jack as he dastardly brings in new teen recruits for Mae to entertain (Lori Alan, who originated Mae, will fill in for Parker through July 14). Also there to entice the kids is Sally (J. Elaine Marcos), a bad girl with a 10-month-old nameless baby whose father is “Unknown”; despite the serious nature of Sally’s poor parenting, the scenes in the den are way sexy and quite laughable due to the original film’s overblown idea of morality. The indefatigable, spectacular ensemble players are Andre Joseph Aultmon, Claire Crause, Jane Pagageorge, and Alex Tho. Even with gigantic face mics, the sound by Charles Glaudini still hasn’t found its sweet spot, so some lyrics are lost and vocals distorted.

Nicole Parker, Bryan Daniel Porter, J. Elaine Marcos
Jane Papageorge, Claire Crause

Set designer Mark A. Dahl has transformed this corner of Whitley and Hollywood Boulevard into its own little city. The theater itself, with exposed brick and girders amazingly lit by Matt Richter, has a stage for the reefer den but with an ingenious quartet of playing areas all around — five if you include a spiral staircase near an ancient upright piano (it all looks like a cross between Man of La Mancha and Psycho). Patrons are seated in rows above the action and at closely clustered cocktail tables with attractive bar chairs for VIP seating, which includes a gift basket (the chairs are a bit merciless for sensitive butts). As actors high-kick and parade through the criss-cross aisles, and waiters carefully serve show-themed drinks and food, it amazes that nobody collides — thanks to Stage Manager Melissa Richter.

Darcy Rose Byrnes, Andre Joseph Aultmon, Jane Papageorge, Bryan Daniel Porter, Nicole Parker,
Anthony Norman, Alex Tho, Claire Crause, Thomas Dekker, J. Elaine Marcos

Outside down a Knott’s Scary Farm-type hallway (with an awesome merch table) is the lovely Victory Garden with a gazebo-esque central bar where audience members and the public mix. In the insanely overpriced ($30) parking lot next to the garden is a Fast Times at Ridgemont High-type van where changing vendors gladly give away samples of their pot (it has to be free, because state law prohibits sales of pot and alcohol in the same establishment). The garden oasis — with a neon sign that says “Wild Dope Party” — opens 90 minutes before curtain for a meal and cocktails (or other mood enhancers) before the musical. The bar closes at 11:30pm, but you can still hang out.

Claire Crause, Alex Tho, Anthony Norman, Andre Joseph Aultmon, Jane Papageorge

Inside, the theater transforms after the show into The Reefer Den, a nightclub where a four-piece band, The 420s, plays Dixie-ish jaunty jazz, led by David Lamoureux, who truly smacks of the ’40s era with bow tie and suit. He’s very slick, jovial, well-spoken, sings romantically, and gets lots of percussion sounds from just two instruments. Guests from Broadway to L.A. make scheduled and surprise appearances, so you never know who might show up (the hilarious Broadway Barbara Dixon joined tonight).

Thomas Dekker

Nowhere else can you find a side-splittingly funny cult classic musical in environs that have an insanely cool vibe, all while celebrating in a cannabis-friendly club and garden. It’s madness, I tell you, MADNESS!

Nicole Parker

photos by Andrew Patino (Ursa Creatives)

Reefer Madness
Mae’s Reefer Den (AKA The Whitley), 6555 Hollywood Blvd.
Thurs & Fri at 8; Sat at 5 & 9; Sun at 2; Wed at 8 (July 3 only; dark on the Fourth)
ends on July 21, 2024
for tickets (starting at $79), visit Reefer Madness

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