‘Reefer Madness, The Musical’ redone as satirical commentary

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Enthusiasm is high over the 4/20 opening of CSU Theatre’s production of the cult classic Reefer Madness, The Musical by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney.

Inspired by the original 1936 propaganda film of the same name, this raucous musical comedy takes a tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek look at the hysteria caused when clean-cut kids fall prey to marijuana, leading them on a hysterical downward spiral filled with evil jazz music, sex, violence and yes, zombies.

ReeferMadnessOriginally produced as a warning to parents about the use of cannabis, the film was later recut by Dwain Esper and gained notoriety as an education-exploitation film, the typically low-budget genre known for excessively hyping trends and news through lurid and trashy scenes intended to be more entertaining than enlightening. Over the years, some of these films have been artistic or revolutionary enough to become culturally significant, such as Night of the Living Dead. However, Reefer Madness has been declared the worst film ever made; Leonard Maltin gave it zero out of four stars, calling it “the granddaddy of all ‘worst’ movies.”

The CSU version

With enthusiastic irony, CSU Theatre has created a highly stylized and satirical political commentary on a film that was originally very sincere and went to great lengths to communicate its message. Reefer Madness, The Musical, directed by Acting and Directing Professor Garrett Ayers, is fresh, contemporary and timely, particularly with the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado.

While CSU’s “B movie” does not shy away from acceptable yet politically incorrect portrayals of teenage drinking and smoking, sex, homophobia and ethnic depictions in the 1930s, Ayers explains, “We’re not advocating anything, but skewering it with a proper amount of adult humor and religious parody, all done in the name of fun.”

With a smattering of musical styles, from big Broadway-style showstoppers and swing tunes to heartfelt ballads and even a Vegas-style lounge song sung by Jesus, the show doesn’t take itself seriously, nor should the audience. “The goal is not to mess with, or poke at, the audience, but to create a pleasurable experience – we want them to have an awesome time,” explained Ayers.

Patrons accustomed to the large thrust theatre at the University Center for the Arts will be pleasantly surprised by the transformation of the venue into a more intimate spatial experience. “We were looking for ways to make the actor/audience relationship more unique,” said Ayers. “We wanted the space to fit the show rather than the other way around.”

What audience members feel like as they are coming in and out of the theatre became very important to the design process. Being from a small town, Ayers imagined the ambiance evoked by sitting in fieldhouse bleachers, or watching the hometown band march in the Fourth of July parade as a child. Working with Scenic Designer Roger Hanna and Associate Designer Shay Dite, the team has reconfigured the venue, taking it back to 1930s Fort Collins High School, home of the Lambkins.

‘Enthusiasm and sincerity’

The actor-driven style, with intimate, pared-down staging, is Ayers’ calling card and the director has pushed students to think about what they can do with their bodies and voices before all else.

“We spent time really examining our individual and collective skills and gauging expectations,” said Ayers of the early rehearsal process. “The best part about working with the students has been their enthusiasm and sincerity.”

While set in the 30s, CSU’s award winning technical chops will be highlighted through the clever blend of new and period sound and lighting.

“The play has a community theatre feel to it because you’ll see the professional musicians [led by David Horger], the stage manager, and the sound guy,” Ayers said. “They’re all integral to shaping the rag tag moments of beauty and the lovingly sloppy atmosphere.”

“Patrons who take a step outside their comfort zone will learn about theatre, laugh a lot, and have a ton of fun; it’ll be an experience they’ll never forget,” Ayers said.

Tickets for Reefer Madness, the Musical are available online at CSUartstickets.com, or at the door, for evening showings on April 20, 21, 22, 23, 29 and 30 at 7:30 p.m. and matinees on April 24 and May 1 at 2 p.m. Cost: No charge/CSU students; $18/general public. Not appropriate for youth under 18.