Reefer Madness: the movie
musical for a new generation
A musical parody of the 1936 propaganda film entertains with over-the-top satire
By Byron Toben
April 27, 2023
This is not only the coming of the Age of Aquarius but also the shaming of the rage of the Nefarious, as exemplified by the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness, which attributed all ills threatening youth to the use of Marijuana, which drove users to not only giggle but to sell their babies, swipe church donations and enact acts of violence.
Originally called Tell Your Children, it urged parents to lobby for the prohibition of the weed, which, in cigarette form, was called reefers and dubbed causing “Reefer Madness” by the head of the U.S. Department of Drug Enforcement. Harry Anslinger conflated such use as being promulgated by Negroes, Mexicans and jazz artists, whom he considered lesser humans than whites. He was one tight-ass promoter.
I was impressed by its young, talented cast of seven speaking roles, six ensemble and five on-stage musicians… I had missed Contact Theatre’s earlier Bonnie and Clyde: The Musical in 2019, but look forward to its next production.
A parody of that film became a 1998 musical, later adapted into a television musical comedy in 2005, premiering at the annual Sundance Film Festival. Now comes a stage version of that film by the new but promising Montreal company Contact Theatre, playing at the Mainline Theatre from April 20 to 29.
I was impressed by its young, talented cast of seven speaking roles, six ensemble and five on-stage musicians, witnessed by some 102 audience members at its sole matinee on April 23. Somehow, I had missed Contact Theatre’s earlier Bonnie and Clyde: The Musical in 2019, but look forward to its next production.
The current show stars: as a lecturer, Jonathan Vanderzon; as naïve school boy turned addict Jimmy, Cathal Rynne; as his love interest Mary Lane, Casey Marie Ecker; as weed middle man Jack, Joel Bernstein; as Sally, Erin Yardley-Jones; as Mae, Caitlin Hawes; and as Ralph, Joseph Salvatore Vitale.
The dynamic ensemble consists of Caeleigh McDonald, Dylan Stanley, Eric Von Arx, Gabriella Dalpe, Julie d’Entrement and Maya Lewis.
They are all kept bopping along by the lively band of Giancarlo Scalia (conductor and piano), Noah Century (reeds), Malika Pharand (bass), Jason Ma (drums) and Alexander Cruz (guitar).
The director, who doubled as choreographer, was inventive Debora Friedman, assisted by a sixteen-strong production team, including three stage managers, two other choreographers and two intimacy directors.
The first act featured eleven songs, the shorter second act, eight, of which three were reprises, so sixteen different songs in all.
In her director’s note, Ms. [Debora] Friedman praises satire… to “highlight the flagrant lies of the original propaganda.’
Lots of stutter movement, turn-on-a-dime transitions and clever cardboard props (a runabout automobile) gave a personality to the whole produced by Ally Brumer, who, with Ms. Friedman, created Contact Theatre.
In her director’s note, Ms. Friedman praises satire (even so campy and broad as here) to “highlight the flagrant lies of the original propaganda.” As a G. Bernard Shaw fan, I heatedly agree. Just as he mocked accents determining social status in Pygmalion (later turned into the musical My Fair Lady), military arms build up in Major Barbara and false religious persecution in Androcles and the Lion, Contact Theatre seems on the right path.
Images: courtesy of Contact Theatre
Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.