September 30, 1999

Small Wonders

Downsized musicals find bigtime success on L.A. stages.

by Les Spindle

(Edited for length and relevance to Reefer Madness)

...While Broadway has lately been dominated by revivals, and impresarios like Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh, and the Disney brass keeping their international mega-hits on perpetual tour, America’s hunger for new book musicals is now being satisfied in more modest ways. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in Los Angeles, where several intimately staged tuners opened this year. The surprising news is that in this genre, less often proves to be more.

Camp Is the Word

If the small-scale book musical is a petite descendant of the Broadway extravaganza, musicals dominated by camp sensibility seem to comprise yet another sub-genre. What with cross-dressing heroines, over-the-top melodrama, and audacious parody, camp has unquestionably been king (or should we say, queen?) among Southland musicals this year. No longer the province of predominantly gay audiences, these goofy spoofs have evolved into crossover hits. Three impressive productions lead the 1999 camp parade -- Reefer Madness and Medea the Musical at Hollywood’s Hudson Theatres, and Miss Desmond Behind Bars at West Hollywood’s Court Theatre.

Among this triumvirate, the guilty pleasures of Reefer Madness seem to have engendered the most passionate responses among critics and audiences alike. Reefer had its world premiere in late April and continues to draw capacity crowds. A clever parody of that didactic, ludicrous 1936 marijuana scare film of the same name, this side-splitting mock horror show is highlighted by splendid comic performances (led by multi-talented Christian Campbell and the charming Jolie Jenkins), a hilarious book (by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney), delightful score (music by Studney, lyrics by Murphy), crackerjack direction by Andy Fickman, and production values that far surpass the expected standard of traditional late-night cult fare.

"We underestimated the diversity of audiences for this show when we positioned it as a late-evening Rocky Horror-type attraction," said Fickman. "We’ve since added a Sunday matinee for people who do not want to go to a 9p.m. performance. At a typical performance, you will find a young punk rocker with green hair and spiked heels seated next to a mature businessman in a suit. There are six to seven men in their 60's who have returned to see the show many times, wearing Reefer t-shirts and sitting in the front row." (One notoriously hardboiled Back Stage West critic admits to becoming a one-man cult, having paid to go back to see the show repeatedly.) The show was conceived by Studney and Murphy two years ago, and Fickman came on board after a successful reading last year.

Mark my words -- this show is headed for the big league, but the next phase of its evolution is uncertain. Fickman continued, "People have been flying back and forth from Chicago and New York to talk about possible stage productions, and there have been discussions about a film version as well. We might mount it in Chicago, Boston, or New York, or we might decide to keep it running in L.A. a while longer. We are currently overbooking on Thursday nights, which is essentially unheard of in this town."

Reefer is unabashed fun.


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