Joint Efforts

Beck Center lights up 1930s hysteria with Reefer Madness of its own.

Mary and Jimmy, one puff away from their sin-soaked - spiral into hell.
Mary and Jimmy, one puff away from their sin-soaked spiral into hell.
One measure of how important marijuana is to some people is the number of slang terms that exist for loco lettuce and its various mixtures, methods of toking, and paraphernalia. It's sort of like Eskimos and their hundreds of words for snow: When something is critical to your existence, you need a lot of language to express yourself. And there are more euphemisms for Aunt Mary than you could shake a joint at. Given that kind of popularity, it was inevitable that a bizarre, 1936 educational-scare movie -- purporting to show how young people are transformed into crazed zombies within half an hour of their first puff of giggle weed -- would become a camp classic shown at pot parties far and wide.

A couple of years ago, Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney decided -- probably after sharing a blunt -- to adapt that movie, Reefer Madness, into a musical, which a spirited cast at Beck Center has turned into a giddy send-up of adult-authoritarian bullshit. So that we can remember the level of furor directed at the Jolly Green back then, Don McBride's set design displays a number of real quotes describing the supposed effects of ganja from publications in the '30s: "[It makes] high school youngsters turn to banditry, girls leap from skyscraper windows, and striplings chop their parents to death." Anyone who's fired up even once knows that's an ever-so-slight exaggeration, and the hypocrisy embedded in those warnings (from old folks who self-medicate themselves into a stupor by other methods) forms the comedic core of the play.

We are led through the dark corridors of hemp hell by a high school official who is using his cast from the recent class play, Green Grow the Lilacs, to illustrate the ravages that result from flying Mexican Airlines. Jimmy and Mary are two squeaky clean teens who adore swapping lines from Romeo and Juliet to share their affection. But once Jimmy is lured into the smoke-filled den of slick druggie Jack, his moll, Mae (Amiee Collier), and a single-mom slut named Sally (given desperately robust sensuality by Allyson Rosen), Jimmy's fate is sealed with one drag of the wacky terbacky. Soon he's using a scandalous new kissing technique ("That was your tongue!" screams a shocked Mary after one such buss) and, on a joyride in a borrowed Packard, running down an old man.

Of course, Mary follows him and also gets hooked, as she grapples amorously with fellow addict Ralph (played with hysterical zeal by Michael Herzog). From there, the moralistic lessons come fast and furious, and are often helpfully spelled out on cards (e.g., "Reefer makes you kill poor old men") carried across the stage by a chorine, like the ring girl at a prize fight. Leaving no ghastly narcotic result unimagined, the comical hyperbole includes a cannibalization, a baby sold for weed, a suicide, and a final retributive electrocution.

This Beck production is addictively entertaining, even though there are no great singers or dancers in the cast. But thanks to some appropriately over-the-top characterizations, the entire evening is a contact high. Matthew Wright is perfectly pompous as the high school administrator, and he also shines in a number of other roles, including a hairy and lascivious satyr. Benji Reid and Betsy Kahl are all sugary as lovebirds Jimmy and Mary, but when each takes a turn for the worse by inhaling some cannabis, their torments are hilariously uninhibited. Curtis Young is sleazy and villainous as drug pusher Jack and the devil himself, but he doesn't quite catch all the fun of his other role: as rockin', one-liner-spewin' Jesus, who visits Jimmy in hopes of steering him onto the right path.

While the often zigzagging melodies and lyrics by Murphy and Studney are pedestrian, and while the second act is padded with a handful of reprises, there are plenty of distractions to keep the show puffing dizzily along. Crisp, inventive direction by Scott Spence maintains a breakneck pace, with some nice cartoonish touches: Slaps and punches are accompanied by the actors yelling "slap!" and "punch!" (although it's unclear why a gunshot is done with a rim shot and not a "bang!"). The many dance numbers are enhanced by Martin Cespedes's ebullient choreography and the energetic musical direction of Larry Goodpaster. Jenniver Sparano's intentionally cheesy costumes -- including Jesus's angels with aluminum pie-plate halos strapped to their heads -- convey the high-school-show aura without being overly patronizing. The only technical difficulties were sound levels that never quite balanced properly.

It's true that the original Reefer Madness was a huge overreach, condemning grass as a drug leading to incurable insanity. But it should be noted that smoking pocket rockets ain't exactly harmless for everyone -- just observe some multi-decade steady users who can't quite string their thoughts together anymore. But we won't Bogart that point.