At the campy heart of “Reefer Madness, The Musical,” teenage lovebirds, Jimmy and Mary Jane, discover Romeo and Juliet in English class. Their duet pines for what they think will be their future – as well as what they think Shakespeare intended.
“We are just like Romeo and Juliet,” they sing. “We’re happy, young and bubbling with love.” Then Jimmy eagerly admits: “I can’t wait to read the ending!” Mary Jane concurs: “I can’t either! But I’m sure it turns out real swell.”
Real swell. Sounds like the 1930s.
Well, jeepers, the whole Reefer Madness enterprise got started in the Depression. And now we’re living in an age of snarky satire. Is it any wonder that a dour black-and-white propaganda film morphed into a cheeky musical and film that use “swell” adroitly?
“Reefer Madness, The Musical” opens Friday (March 17) at the Durango Arts Center and runs weekends through April 2. It’s a high-camp parody of a deadly serious film made in 1936 to warn the nation about the menace of marijuana. The original film title, “Reefer Madness,” carried the subtitle: “Tell Your Children.”
The Depression-era tale has been called “one of the worst films ever made.” So, what better source material for a contemporary, camped-up musical?
The “Reefer” timeline began with the dopey fictionalized film, directed by Louis Gasnier. A trio of drug dealers descend on a small town, like Harold Hill in “The Music Man.” But they’re not selling trombones, they are peddling marijuana. The narrator admonishes citizens and parents: “See this important film now before it is too late.”
WHAT: “Reefer Madness, The Musical,” presented by the Durango Arts Center in association with Doctuh Mistuh Productions, directed by Michael McKelvey.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, March 17 to April 2; 5 p.m. March 12 and 19.
WHERE: DAC, 802 East Second Ave.
TICKETS: $15 to $25: at DAC noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; Box Office open show days from 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, from 3:30 p.m. Sundays, or at the door.
MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.durangoarts.org/theatre or call 259-2606.
After World War II, the film itself developed a camp following for its hyperbole, finger-pointing tone and frenzied claims. In the 1990s, two musical-comedy guys, composer Kevin Murphy and lyricist Dan Studney, saw the possibilities for an absurdist remake. They concocted what has now become a cult classic. In 1999, Murphy-Studney presented the musical in Los Angeles. By 2001, it morphed to Off-Broadway. The film musical came out in 2005. Now, community theater and college groups are snapping it up.
“’Reefer’ is being produced locally by DAC in association with Doctuh Mistuh Productions,” Director Michael McKelvey said. McKelvey heads up the musical theater major at Fort Lewis College and also operates two professional companies: Durango Theatreworks and Doctuh Mistuh Productions. “DMP is my personal production company,” he said.
Founded in Austin, Texas, in 2009, DMP has built a reputation for bringing Off-Broadway shows to city stages. It has presented regional Texas premieres of shows such as “Heathers.” In 2017, McKelvey moved DMP to New Orleans to produce shows such as “Reefer Madness,” “The Laramie Project“ and “Hand to God.” In Durango, DMP will now mount “Reefer,” and this coming summer, McKelvey will return to Austin with DMP for the regional premiere of “Lizzie: The Musical.”
McKelvey has assembled a stellar cast combining local actors and FLC student performers. The major characters begin with Holden Grace (narrator/lecturer), Oliver Kennedy (Jimmy), Mohriah James (Mary Jane), Jason Lythgoe (Jack and Jesus), Jenny Fitts-Reynolds (Mae), Geoff Johnson (Ralph) and Siena Widen (Sally). The ensemble consists of Travis Carlson, Jade Sophia, Shaunibah Morfin, Lilia Reynolds, Shainna Allen and Armondo Yazzie.
McKelvey’s creative team includes fellow FLC faculty member Curtis Reynolds as music director and pianist in the on-stage band with guitarist Chris Jensen and percussionist Cruz Muñiz. The tech crew includes: Sean Jackson (set), Rhianna Castile (costumes), Alison Thomas-Visgar (choreography), Tyler Wiseman (lighting) and James Mirabel (sound).
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.