By John Farrell
“Reefer Madness,” the original movie, was created in 1936 by a very over-zealous ( and badly misinformed) U.S. Government to fight the supposed craze for “marihuana” (the spelling then.)
The official who spearheaded the film was still in office thirty-odd years later, so probably the government took a long while to recognize just how silly the film was, but the counter-culture, even pre-Beatnik (and that is a long time ago) knew a grossly inaccurate and unintentionally funny film when they saw it, and “Reefer Madness” has been the darling of late-night video parties at home and in movie houses for many more years than it was ever a threat to pot-use.
“Reefer Madness the Musical”) took that sense of the ridiculous and ran with it, producing on Broadway in 1997 a hit musical that didn't have to exaggerate much to make fun of the 60-year-old views. By then Bill Clinton had admitted smoking marijuana (but not inhaling) and pretty much everyone who wasn't a die-hard remnant from J. Edgar Hoover recognized that marijuana wasn't the complete threat to the social fabric that “Reefer Madness” made it out to be.
The audience, raised in the 60's and later, were party-hearty and the musical went on to Tony heaven and a national tour. And now, in the hands of the very students it was ready to warn 75 years ago, “Reefer Madness” has come to the Burnright Auditorium at Cerritos College in a production that features a lively cast, great costumes (which on occasion the whole cast shucks right down to fig leaves) and choreography that is bright, dazzling and often electric. Speaking of electric, the whole show is miced and those mics were a large part of the disruption in the first half of the musical on opening night May 6, but the person in charge of technical matters fixed that problem, and everything went swimmingly thereafter.
The musical takes after the movie, with Chris Hayhurst as the lecturer (apparently modeled on Harry J. Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics,) giving the audience the benefits of his deep knowledge of reefer culture, funny enough now but probably more than a little dangerous then. (Hayhurst also plays the Devil, with horns, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the musical's definitely upbeat end.) He tells the story of Jimmy (Korey Mitchell) and his high school sweetheart Mary (Rebecca Fondiler) as they are caught up in the grip of “reefer.” The story is as expected, with Mary dead at the end and Jimmy saved from the electric chair by a cheerful presidential pardon. All this is told with plenty of in-jokes that everyone now recognizes as truth, (just one: marijuana is not addictive) but were part and parcel of the government's propaganda campaign back then.
Unlike many more expensive productions, this one featured a live band, seven very lively musicians directed with energy by Hector Salazar. Stage director Patrick Pearson keeps his large and lovely cast (especially when naked) moving through the story's more and more improbable events with a cheerful eye and a sure hand. And choreographer Kelly Todd does a first-rate job getting every ounce of effort and wonderful scenes of effective movement from the very large cast. (One advantage to student productions: you don't have to pay the cast.)
The mics started things on the wrong foot, but were repaired by the middle of the performance, and the singing, of the effective if not-too memorable songs, was better than the broad playing of the cast. (But then how could this material be taken as anything but parody?)
“Reefer Madness” is just lots of almost-innocent fun, and 76 years after the film, it's nice to hear an enthusiastic audience (some of whom, just perhaps, had smoked reefer once or twice) laughing now at what was then a very serious subject. “Reefer Madness” plays Friday, May 13 and Saturday, May 14 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 15 at 2 p.m. You'll love it, and you'll probably love it more if you get stoned beforehand (not that we are suggesting anything.)
John Farrell is a theater critic who writes for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the Torrance Daily Breeze, the Pasadena Star-News and Random Lengths News in San Pedro. His twice monthly column can be at found at www.randomlengthsnews.com (Click on “ACE” stories when you reach the web page.)