REEFER MADNESS IS SUCH A HIGH THAT YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE STONED TO ENJOY IT
In 1936, a church group sponsored a motion picture aimed at warning young people about the dangers of marijuana. The film, called Reefer Madness, was a cheesy combination of over the top acting by Hollywood bit players and laughable production values. The film was soon forgotten until it was discovered in the Library of Congress in 1971. It went into re-release as a gag event for pot smokers and rapidly became an underground cult classic for the college midnight movie crowd. (The public domain film was distributed by the then nascent New Line Cinema and its founder Robert Shaye, bankrolling the company with over $2 million; subsequent distributions (Pink Flamingos, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs) led to Shaye’s foray into producing, namely Nightmare on Elm Street.)
In 1998, Kevin Murphy (book and lyrics) and Dan Studney (music) adapted the unintentionally campy film into a musical that has played throughout the country, in various tweaked versions, and became a made-for-television film in 2005. The musical is now being presented by the Circle Theatre and it is an absolute hoot.
Reefer Madness tells the cautionary tale of how marijuana smoking led wholesome teenager Jimmy Harper into a spiral of degradation that leads to tragedy, an electric chair, and even the intervention President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The narrative starts out in 1938 as a show within a show, with a grim lecturer standing at a podium in a high school gymnasium. He’s there to warn a PTA audience that marijuana smoking threatens the youth of America and steps must be taken, or our society is doomed.
The story then morphs into the tale of high schoolers Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane. Harper is lured into a marijuana den by a pusher named Jack. There he reluctantly accepts a marijuana cigarette, and after one puff he’s a goner; the rest of the story recounts his descent into a doper’s hell. Jack and his minions represent the evils of pot at their most extravagant, portrayed in phantasmagorical dance numbers and some hilarious gross-out scenes that demonstrate just how low marijuana can bring a human being.
The production is the most ambitious I’ve seen at the Circle. There is a large cast of 15 mostly young people, seven principals and a chorus of four males and four females. They triumphantly deliver a plot that is pure nonsense and characters no better than cartoons. What keeps the show afloat is the Circle’s high-motor ensemble who throw themselves gleefully into one production number after another created by Brigitte Ditmars, who instantly has catapulted herself onto the A list of Chicagoland choreographers. Ditmars shares the evening’s honors with director Matthew Gunnels, who deftly balances the show’s silliness with its droll wit and sight gags. His production is wild but under control. The performers obviously recognize they are in a preposterous show but they play it straight, no patronizing and no condescension to the inanities of the story.
Reefer Madness has some of the “what next?” weirdness of The Rocky Horror Show, without the raunchiness (the Circle production states there is some partial nudity but it amounts to nothing more than a few glimpses of Jimmy Harper’s backside). Much of the show is intentionally corny, but there are some inspired hip moments, notably the introduction of a very mod Jesus who jives with the characters. The comic bits nimbly fall just short of crossing the line marked “warning: offensive to religious sensibilities.” Periodically a chorus girl enters the stage displaying moralizing placards carrying slogans that stress the pitfalls of marijuana.
Part of the fun lies in Murphy’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics; here is a sampling as delivered by Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam, and George Washington, along with the ensemble and lecturer, who adds a right wing peroration:
“And once the reefer has been destroyed
We’ll start on Darwin and Sigmund Freud
And sex depicted on celluloid
And communists and queens!
When danger’s near
Exploit their fear—
The end will justify the means!”
Most of the performers play multiple roles, none more effective than Jason Grimm, who plays the lecturer and an abundance of subsidiary characters. Why haven’t we seen him on the area’s more high-profile stages? A college student named Ryan Stajmiger plays Jimmy like a young Robert Morse. Stajmiger doesn’t have much of an acting resume, according to the playbill, but he is the real deal as a lad who plummets from wide-eyed innocence to a human ruin. He’s on stage nearly the entire show and he nails his role, whether he’s acting, singing, or dancing. Landree Fleming is just right as Jimmy’s sweet young thing, Mary Lane, and is also the show’s best dancer.
Eric Lindahl is a show stealer as the super cool Jesus and does convincing work as the suave Jack, the nasty drug pusher who leads Jimmy down the path to destruction; Liz Bollar has the show’s best singing voice as the pusher’s moll; Tommy Bullington is comical as the pusher’s weed-crazed sidekick; and Elissa Newcorn throws herself into the role of a depraved pot smoker in the pusher’s entourage with commendable enthusiasm.
The chorus pops in and out the action with countless costume changes and limitless stamina. They all deserve to be named—Bobby Arnold, Julia Beck, Kyle Kuhlman, Melody Latham, Joshua Peterson, Gina Sparacino, Neil Stratman, and Stephanie Wohar.
The production values are top-drawer for a theater with the limited resources of the Circle: Peter O’Neill designed the clever all-purpose two-level set; John Nasca designed the wardrobe of faux 1930’s costumes; Gary Echelmeyer designed the lighting; and Matt Gajowniczek the sound. And props to Brian Powers for adding to the hilarity with his puppet design and Talon Bunn for the placard design. The off-stage orchestra led by musical director John Landvick was the best I have ever heard at the Circle.
Reefer Madness may be the surprise hit of the season. A show that could have been a nudge-nudge-wink-wink exercise in low comedy absurdity turns into two hours of creative, high spirited entertainment, as impressive and amusing a presentation as I’ve ever seen at this theater.
photos by Bob Knuth and Jerry Schulman
Circle Theatre in Oak Park (Chicago Theater)
scheduled to end on August 26
for tickets, call 708 660 9540 or visit http://www.circle-theatre.org
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com