'Reefer Madness': A Drag on a Joint

Performers such as Bobby Smith and Channez McQuay bring sincerity to tired material at Studio 2ndstage.
Performers such as Bobby Smith and Channez McQuay bring sincerity to tired material at Studio 2ndstage. (By Scott Suchman -- Studio Theatre)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"Reefer Madness" is a molehill of a musical, a labored attempt to make fresh hay of a tired joke. That joke would be the 1930s movie of the same title, and the effort it invested was in portraying marijuana not only as a corrupting influence but also as an enemy of truth, justice and the American Way.

The movie has been playing to disdainful guffaws at college film societies for decades, and perhaps this satirical musical adaptation, first produced in 1999, might find its rightful place in the bare corners of off-campus rathskellers. Studio Theatre 2ndstage has chosen to mount it in conjunction with the Capital Fringe Festival. Given that it is not especially new (or even consistently funny), the show doesn't feel like a particularly worthy fit for a major local theater company's foray into the Fringe.

What the production has going for it is the sincerity of its cast, which includes the estimable Lawrence Redmond, Bobby Smith and Channez McQuay, as well as a brace of younger performers, well drilled by director Keith Alan Baker. And choreographer Matthew Gardiner makes economical use of the limited confines of Studio's raw upstairs space.

Employing a hyperbolic performance technique that telegraphs every laugh line, the show seems designed for people prepared to dissolve reflexively into hysterics. (Did someone say "stoned"?) We're greeted by a pleasant-seeming, buttoned-down high school lecturer played by Redmond, who offers a cautionary excursion into the evils of the devil weed.

On a screen behind him flash grainy black-and-white images and, on occasion, scare-tactic slogans such as "Reefer gets you raped and you don't care." These warnings are intended to coincide with the events unfolding on the stage, which have to do with a picket-fence pair of teenage lovers (Andrew Sonntag and Lauren Williams) who fall under the spell of a "local reefer den" and a shady guy with a pencil-thin mustache (Smith) who proffers joints as if they possessed the summoning powers of Harry Potter's wand.

The songs by Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy should be leavening elements here, but they're mostly of a pedestrian variety. Giorgos Tsappas creates some serviceable set pieces, and costume designer Yvette Ryan contributes an eye-filling wardrobe.

Among the actors, Rachel Zampelli's potted floozy is a palliative. But it's a long sit for no high.

Reefer Madness, music by Dan Studney, lyrics by Kevin Murphy, book by Studney and Murphy. Directed by Keith Alan Baker. Musical direction, Gabe Mangiante; fight coaching, Casey Kaleba; projections and sound, Erik Trester; lighting, Jason Cowperthwaite. With Ryan Murvin. About two hours. Through Aug. 5 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit

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