June 10--You won't need a certain kind of brownie to get a serious case of the giggles from "Reefer Madness."
Making its regional debut at the San Jose Stage, the musical is based on the infamous 1936 film that, in a ham-handed but completely serious way, was designed to warn high school students and their parents about the dangers of marijuana. The movie really became famous when its lurid depictions of life with the ol' demon weed became a hit on the midnight art house and college circuit, where packed houses of kids (most of them stoned) would howl their way through the flick.
In 1998, Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney -- a couple of TV writers who worked on "Desperate Housewives" and "Weird Science" -- decided "Reefer Madness" was just perfect for a musical satire. They kept the basic storyline of the film (two All-American kids go bad) and the framing device of a narrator who issues earnest warnings about pot and then layered on music, more blatant sex, cannibalism (hey, folks get the munchies) and an appearance by Jesus Christ.
A big success in Los Angeles when it opened, the show went on to scoop up a bunch of awards and then headed to New York for an Off-Broadway run. A tweaked version of the musical was made into a movie with Kristen Bell and Alan Cumming that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was later shown on Showtime.
The current stage version of the show is closer to the movie than to the original Los Angeles production,
and it is just the kind of loopy, tongue-in-cheek sendup that is right in the musical wheelhouse of San Jose Stage. In recent seasons, the company has scored big hits with "Avenue Q" and "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," and it certainly knows its way around this kind of material.
At the start of the show, we are dropped into the auditorium at Benjamin Harrison High School circa 1936, where the Lecturer (Galen Murphy-Hoffman of Shotgun Players' "Assassins") informs us that we are about to see a cautionary tale about a grave threat to our nation, performed by the cast of the school's recent production of "Green Grow the Lilacs."
It's the story of Jimmy Harper (Barnaby James) and Mary Lane (Courtney Hatcher, seen in "Andrew Jackson"), a couple of wholesome teens who think pure thoughts and study "Romeo and Juliet" for their English class. But there's a dark side to life in the town, a reefer den presided over by a slick pusher named Jack (Gabriel Grilli) and his drug-dependent girlfriend Mae (Stage regular Allison F. Rich, who doubles as musical director). Thinking he's going to get some jazzy dance lessons so he can impress Mary, Jimmy gets sucked into this underworld, where he soon develops a taste for the ol' demon weed.
Soon, Mary has lost her Jimmy to weed, wild sex and other debaucheries. But Jimmy is jolted out of his stupor when, while driving Mary's car, he and another reefer addict hit and kill an old man. From there on, carnage ensues, with Mary dead and Jimmy facing execution for her murder -- only to be saved by Mae and President Franklin D. Roosevelt and redeemed by Jesus and a heavenly Mary.
Under the direction of Tony Kelly, who last directed "Race" at the Stage, the cast has a grand old time, attacking the material (and chewing the scenery) with gusto. Murphy-Hoffman, James, Grilli (who also plays Jesus) and Hatcher are all good, and Rich, an invaluable player in the Stage's "Andrew Jackson" and "Cabaret," is very good as Mae. The ensemble works hard, and the choreography, by Brittany and Carmichael (CJ) Blankenship, is strong. The set by Giulio Perrone is minimal but fine, while the costumes from Jean Cardinale are terrific.
In all honesty, the music by Murphy and Studney is more serviceable and funny than really outstanding. It will never be mistaken for, say, "Little Shop of Horrors," another show based on an old grade C flick. But the cast has a nice blend of voices, which gives the tunes a kick.
If you are looking for a challenging evening of theater, "Reefer Madness" isn't it. But in the Stage production, it succeeds at its intent: making an audience laugh, giggle and howl.
For local arts and entertainment and more, follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
By Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, based on the movie
Through: June 30
Where: San Jose Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $25-$50, 408-283-7142, www.thestage.org
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