“Creeping like a communist, it’s knocking at our doors—turning all our children into hooligans and whores. Voraciously devouring the way things are today, savagely deflowering the good ol’ U.S.A.—it’s Reefer Madness. Reefer Madness.”

Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time not so far back when the common wisdom was that marijuana was indeed a “destructive but seductive scourge” as “stealthy as a socialist”; in other words, a menace that had to be fought, a devil that had to be killed.

If you don’t believe me, check out the 1938 exploitation “classic” Reefer Madness, whose poster proclaimed “Women cry for it. Men Die For it,” and promised “drug-crazed abandon” for “Adults Only!” This black-and-white Z-movie featured a hit and run accident, manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape, and drug-induced madness, all of them caused by the leaf now more affectionately known as cannabis, ganja, grass, herb, pot, weed, and the more colorful Acapulco Gold and Maui Wowie.

Reefer Madness might have disappeared into the Limbo Of Lost Films had it not been rediscovered in the 1970s and used as a comedic promo tool for pot reform. Then, a couple decades later, Reefer Madness The Movie got turned into a smash hit musical which World Premiered right here in L.A., then headed to off-Broadway, and finally transferred to back to the medium of film thanks to Showtime.

A lucky thirteen years after its Los Angeles debut, Reefer Madness is back in L.A.-adjacent Norwalk in a terrific, mostly student-cast production at the Cerritos College Burnight Center Theatre—and if the words “student production” send chills up and down your theatergoing spine, rest assured. With the whiz kid director Patrick Pearson in charge, choreography by Chance Theater gem Kelly Todd, and virtuoso musical director Hector Salazar holding the baton, musical theater lovers can rest assured that a smokin’ good time will be had by all.

Triple threat (and soon-to-be CSUF senior) Chris Hayhurst narrates Reefer Madness in the guise of an oh-so serious Lecturer who assures us that everything we are about to see is absolutely true, then introduces us to weed victim Mae (Stephanie Bull) and her pusher boyfriend Jack (Derek Rubiano), and to high school sweethearts Jimmy (Korey Mitchell) and Mary (Rebecca Fondiler), whose Romeo And Juliet-pure love is about to be turned putrid—and worse—by Demon Weed.

Reefer Madness minces no words about the menace “The Stuff” poses to America’s teens, with Five And Dime proprietor Mr. Poppy (Hayhurst again) warning us in “Down At The Ol’ Five And Dime” to beware of Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and other “ginger-colored agents of evil,” as we observe heretofore well-behaved kids turn animalistic simply by jitterbugging to the sexually tantalizing rhythms of “swing-jazz” music.

Since every addict must recruit newbies, Jack recruits Jimmy to the Reefer Team, inviting him to a “real party” at the Reefer Den he shares with psycho toker Ralph (Joshua Lopez), reefer slut Sally (Elena Murray), and the heard-but-not-seen infant whom Mama Sally will soon sell to finance her habit. It’s nigh-on impossible to say “No” to all this evil, and soon Jimmy is in a hallucinatory orgy surrounded by nearly naked revelers and a hunky Satyr (Hayhurst once again in body-to-die-for mode).

If about now you’re asking yourself if Mary will be next to succumb to “hemptation,” do you really need to ask?

Like an R-rated Little Shop Of Horrors, Reefer Madness proves as seductive as the weed itself, with catchy melodies by Dan Studney, clever lyrics by Kevin Murphy, and a hilariously campy book by Studney and Murphy that gives us a puppy brutalized, a church poor box broken into, a Packard stolen, a joyride taken, an old man run over… And that’s just in Act One. Murphy’s lyrics sparkle with lines like “Come on, Jimmy, Come on, Jimmy, suck it down for Sally!” and “Join the wonder dance! Lose the underpants!” and “Eat the brownie! Eat the brownie!” and “When the bambalacha’s gotcha you’ll forget the word ‘No.’” As for those Studney melodies, expect to be hearing the notes which accompany “Loved by Mary, loved by Mary, loved by Mary Lane” long after the audience sing-along has ended.

Hayhurst also appears as a train ticket seller, a police inspector, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (with dancing feet, even wheelchair-bound), roles which he performs with imagination and verve, making him the charismatic standout amongst an all-around terrific young cast.

Mitchell and Fondiler are a delight as the boy and girl next door turned bad, particularly when Reefer Madness turns him maniacal and her sexually insatiable. Rubiano is deliciously dastardly as Jack, then the picture of heavenly perfection as a well-sculpted Jesus (yes, that Jesus). Murray makes for a sensationally slutty Sally, big-voiced Bull is a voluptuous hoot as the love-and-drug-stuck Mae, and a hilarious Lopez makes Ralph the picture of madness gone berserk, in addition to playing several supporting cameo roles. Sexy “Placard Girl” Nikki Miller appears and reappears carrying signs which comment on the dangers of the titular weed: “Reefer makes you sell your baby for drug money.” “Reefer makes you giggle for no reason.” “Reefer annihilates true love.”

Supporting the above are a talented bunch of kids just the right age for Reefer Madness: Travis Ammann (whose diaper-clad falsetto solo is an Act One highlight), Jillian Beard, Erica Beck, Audrey Curd, Sheridan Elmer, Tad Fujioka, Danny Marin, Orlando Martinez, Rachel Murray, Rachel Lee Pence, Ryan Spindell, and Gavin Topper. These kids may or may not have come into this production as trained dancers, but under Todd’s expert choreographic guidance, they perform production number after production number like troupers.

Salazar leads a pitch-perfect pit orchestra. David Ward’s scenic design deals imaginatively with the challenge of a too-large stage and an obviously limited budget. Megan MacLean’s costume designs are just right for the show and the 1930s timeframe, as are Christine Stahl’s make-up and wig designs. Brad Williams’ sound design deals well with the challenge of mixing amped voices and musical instrument.

With way too many musicals getting an over-abundance of revival productions, it’s refreshing to see a rarely-produced show like Reefer Madness get the chance to show off its many tangy treats. Though it may not give you quite the high that the real stuff will, Reefer Madness is guaranteed to entertain … with an added plus. It won’t get you arrested for partaking in its many pleasures.

Burnight Center Theatre, 11110 Alondra Blvd. Norwalk.
–Steven Stanley
May 12, 2011

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