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Reefer Madness

Presented by James L. Nederlander and Verna Harrah in association with Nathaniel Kramer and Terry Allen Kramer and Dead Old Man Productions at the Variety Arts Theatre, 110 Third Ave, NYC. Opened Oct. 7 for an open run.

This frenetic new musical is based on the 1936 "scare film" of the same name that has become a campy cult classic. Written by Kevin Murphy (book and lyrics) and Dan Studney (book and music), it tells in cartoon-style the descent of straight-arrow Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell) and his teenage sweetheart, Mary (Kristen Bell), into the nightmare world of local dope fiends, led by the drug-pusher, Jack (Robert Torti). Providing this cautionary tale is the Lecturer (Gregg Edelman), who also gets to play umpteen parts in this salute to moral decay.

The musical belongs very much to the "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" school of parody, elevating winking and nudging to new levels. The director, Andy Fickman, sets a frantic pace, abetted by Paula Abdul's choreography, which owes more to energy and enthusiasm than to art. This frenzied sleight-of-hand, however, cannot cloak for long the fact that there's really not much going on here, and eventually the show's unflagging desire to distract becomes downright dispiriting.

Murphy and Studney are unable to find a style (musical or otherwise) for the piece, and it's left to the cast to keep this exercise in obviousness afloat. Thus sophomoric zest is applied just as heartily to religious bad taste (Torti's Jesus: "I'm the poster boy for Easter!") as it is to blood-squirting gothic gore (costume designer Dick Magnanti's hoe-through-the-heart creation is a wonder to behold). Edelman provides consistent authority throughout the proceedings, Torti has a true stage presence, and Campbell and Bell are appealing (if a trifle relentless). But it is left to Michele Pawk as Mae, the reefer den hostess, to cut through the show's heavy haze, presenting her solo, "The Stuff", with singular style.

As Dame Edna Everage has always maintained, two basic tenets of entertainment are "color and movement," and for some this would seem sufficient. Witness the young man in his early 20s who, upon leaving "Reefer Madness", turned to his group of friends, arms open wide, and proclaimed, "Awesome!"

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