Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical
The era of the big Hollywood musical is long gone, but in live theater, the genre lingers on through recent hits like Avenue Q and Wicked. But what works onstage often falls flat on the screen, where the visual language and pacing expectations are different, and performers have to work harder to bring across the live energy that keeps musicals moving. Pacing issues dog Showtime's TV adaptation of the raunchy Off-Broadway musical Reefer Madness, but the performers make the most of the energy issue by playing to the rafters, adding a thick layer of hyperbole to a musical that's already an ultra-camped-up version of a camp classic. The sarcasm is thick enough to cut with a knife, but the conceit mostly works. By parodying the original Reefer Madness, the musical genre, their stated message, and themselves, the cast and crew of Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical leave absolutely nothing to take too seriously.
Alan Cumming sets the tone as a scenery-gnawing traveling lecturer and cynical showman spreading hysterical panic about the evils of marijuana. In a flat black-and-white frame story set in 1936 (when the original cautionary film Reefer Madness was made), he sits down with a group of naïve townsfolk to watch the filmed story of Christian Campbell and Kristen Bell, a painfully perky, apple-cheeked, all-American couple torn apart when a single puff on a "gigglestick" turns Campbell into a drooling, oversexed hooligan prone to extensive hallucinatory song-and-dance numbers. Original creators Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, who adapted their stage script for the screen version, drew on modern musicals from Grease to Annie for this slickly postmodern parody, but director Andy Fickman mostly seems to be shooting for the high-camp tone of Frank Oz's similarly tongue-in-cheek film adaptation of Little Shop Of Horrors. (Though more than a touch of Rocky Horror Picture Show crops up as well, especially when the clothes start falling off, the humping, howling, and weed-fueled cannibalism begin, and Jesus shows up to lead a smarmy cabaret number urging Campbell to clean up his act.)
Still, the story mostly gets sold by the enthusiastic cast, many of whom are veterans of the Off-Broadway production. In particular, Bell (currently playing a different kind of wholesome as the star of Veronica Mars) bubbles with gooey good cheer that becomes all the more hilarious when she suffers her own cannabis-fueled transformation. Many of the songs go on far too long, and even clever lyrics, snappy staging, and an extended dance cameo from Campbell's sister Neve Campbell can't keep the whole production from feeling overlong and overblown. Still, the musical is an even bigger, better, and brighter belly laugh than its still-hilarious 1936 inspiration.