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    It’s One Toke Over the Line at WHAT with Reefer Madness: The Musical

    July 8, 2024

    Before it became an iconic cult hit, Reefer Madness was a well-intentioned (and unintentionally hilarious) cautionary tale entitled Tell Your Children that had its début as a film in 1936.

    Or… sort-of well-intentioned. Re-examining it in 2024 with the threat of an authoritarian state looming, the same heavy-handedness that made the film and later the musical into cult classics feels a little too real, a little too Orwellian, a little too immediate. In that sense, this is a good summer for the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater to produce Reefer Madness: The Musical, an ambitious, many-moving-parts spoof that hits very close indeed to home.

    The audience finds itself a part of the cast as the show opens: we’re in a high-school auditorium, being lectured to by a school official (Jody O’Neil, marvelous in this and his various other roles in the show) about a terrible scourge of drugs—specifically, marijuana—and the “unspeakable acts of degradation” it incites. In our own culture, devastated by a very serious opioid epidemic and with a cannabis dispensary now at nearly every corner, this is of course laughable—but it also underlines what happens when fearmongering goes out of control.

    The tale the lecturer is sharing is that of Jimmy Harper (Kyle Becker) and his one true love, Mary Lane (Maranda Rossi), who couldn’t be whiter if they tried. Determined to impress Mary, Jimmy seeks out the suave and elegant dancer Jack (Brian Lore Evans), who is of course also a suave and elegant drug dealer. Luring clean-cut Jimmy into his den of iniquity, Jack introduces Jimmy to junkies Mae (Brittany Rolfs) and Sally (Paige O’Connor), and gives him a hit off a joint. Jimmy is instantly transformed into a drug fiend, willing to do anything—or give up everything—to get his fix.

    A fairly predictable but often hysterical plot ensues. Jimmy tries to break up with Mary and steals her car (killing a pedestrian in the process), but, unwilling to give up on True Love, she pursues him and eventually falls into the same trap—one puff and she’s hooked.

    Mary doesn’t have much time to enjoy her addiction, as the whole Marijuana Crew subsequently shows up: Mae, Sally, Jack, dropout junkie Ralph (Gabriel Graetz), and Jimmy himself; in a struggle, Jack accidentally shoots Mary. She takes a wonderfully melodramatic time to die—there’s always space for one final heartfelt duet—before Jack convinces Jimmy that he’s the one who shot his girlfriend. The police arrive, Ralph kills (and possibly eats?) Sally, and Mae comes to her senses. She prevails upon the president to pardon Jimmy and saves him from the electric chair; Mary is somehow liberated from the Hereafter and reappears, and everyone agrees that weed is a Very Bad Thing.

    It’s not the plot that makes Reefer Madness so much fun, of course; it’s the lovely wackiness of it all. Eras come and go with some abandon and little logic—from dancing the Charleston to the evils of jazz, from bobby socks and soda jerks to slinky lingerie and bobbed coiffures, it’s hard to see exactly when it’s supposed to take place, which adds to the silliness of it all.

    Director Christopher Ostrom also did the scenic design, which was clever and creative, and Patricia M. Nichols’ lighting choices made the set even more appropriately garish and cartoonish.

    It’s impossible with such a large cast to comment on individual performances, save to say the supporting cast was truly fantastic. Every cast member played multiple roles, seamlessly transitioning from one persona to the next, and the energy exuding from the stage was nonstop—and on point with the insanity of the musical. It’s an impressive collection of triple-threat talent and the casting was spot-on.

    A special shout-out to Gracie O’Leary as the Placard Girl, looking very Jazz Age as she crosses the stage issuing dire warnings such as Reefer Makes You Kill Your Babies and Reefer Makes You Giggle For No Good Reason.

    This is an exceptionally challenging piece to produce—and a big one, with three pages of the program dedicated to naming creative, technical, and acting roles—and yet all these people conveyed the sense that it was as fun to put on as it was to watch. The plethora of songs drove the story and the momentum; I’d just call out two in particular: The Stuff as a dramatic, sultry tune, and Listen to Jesus, Jimmy as a funny, beautifully timed ensemble piece.

    Reefer Madness: The Musical will definitely have you laughing… while at the same time, the ultra-patriotic ending—featuring Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty, and others urging conformity to acceptable behavior—underlines the absurdity of the American tendency towards moral outrage and is a strong warning about the politics of the day.

    It’s wrapped in laughter, great songs, and nifty dancing, but we will ignore it at our peril.


    review by Jeannette de Beauvoir

    photos by Michael and Susan Karchmer

    Reefer Madness: The Musical

    Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater

    July 5-27, Tuesday-Saturday, 7pm

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