I had a very strange eighth grade year at my humble little Catholic school.
For starters, while others might have gone to various parks or museums as part of their field trips, my class went to a drug rehabilitation live-in facility and played basketball with recovering addicts.
A very nice group of folks for sure, I’m just not sure it would be a trip that would fly nowadays.
Our films for the year were often poorly acted bible stories. There was also a viewing of the Franco Zeffirelli film “Romeo and Juliet,” starring extremely hot Olivia Hussey and one glorious second of her right boob, which was pure heaven for eighth grade yours truly. And for some reason, we watched “The Jazz Singer” with Neil Diamond. Seriously, what the hell was that for?
But there was one film that stood out from the rest. It was one of the hottest anti-drug films at the time; a film made in 1978, and was certainly dated by the time it got to my class in the later 1980’s.
The title? “Reading, Writing and Reefer.”
In San Jose Stage’s sublimely cheerful production of “Reefer Madness,” one of the great little morsels of the production is how different cast members walk out sharing a critical “fact” about marijuana. I won’t reveal my favorite ones here, they’re much more fun for the audience to discover.
And while these little facts are completely absurd, blaming marijuana for everything wrong in the world, it’s not too far off from the rap that marijuana has gotten over the years. One of my favorite statistics from “Reading, Writing and Reefer” – smoking five joints is equal to smoking 112 cigarettes.
“Reefer Madness” is a tightly portrayed hit parade with a fabulous ensemble cast, beautifully harnessed by director Tony Kelly and sharply choreographed by Brittany Blankenship and Carmichael “CJ” Blankenship.” The play is wonderfully constructed, has a feel like some sort of perverse “Our Town” (encouraging a different kind of smoking during intermission for sure) and moves through space at a very sharp and satisfying clip.
The play is based on a few sources, most notably the 1936 propaganda film titled “Tell Your Children, Reefer Madness.” It was originally supposed to be a film to educate the masses on the dangers of marijuana, but it was so absurdly ridiculous, it became a hilarious exploitation cult classic.
A lecturer (An intense Galen Murphy-Hoffman) shares the cautionary tale of Jimmy Harper (the sharp Barnaby James), a 16-year-old all-American boy who is falling in love with the fair Mary Lane (dazzlingly dim-witted Courtney Hatcher), and they sit and study together, sharing hope that the end of “Romeo and Juliet” will involve lots of babies.
Shortly after, Jimmy meets drug pusher Jack (Gabriel Grilli, absolutely hilarious in dual roles), and his downward spiral begins. A slew of other shady reeferians come to the forefront – Jack’s “stuff” loving girlfriend Mae (A sultry and skilled performance by “Stage” veteran and musical director Allison F. Rich), and perpetual blaze king Ralph (a hilarious physical portrayal by regular “Stage” performer Will Springhorn, Jr.)
The strength of the production is certainly a wonderful ensemble cast, and music that is famously cheeky. Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney’s book, music and lyrics are all wonderful examples of irreverent fun, and the tunes are zanily funny and endearingly catchy. Songs like Mae’s hopeless aria “The Stuff,” the joyous rock and roll ditty “Down at the Ol’ Five and Dime,” and Mary’s ode to the pain of loss “Lonely Pew” are songs that are so different stylistically, yet they all fit beautifully under the satiric umbrella that the creators seem to be going for. Songs can go from pathos-filled ballad to sultry and dimly lit sexy in a matter of moments, which is genuinely effective.
To be sure, if one is not into blatantly irreverent humor, this is probably not a play for them. But surely, the cast is extremely aware that their tongues are firmly planted in their cheeks in regards to the show’s content, and with the assistance of the creative team, the company plays their roles with maximum commitment. I mean, you can’t attend many plays where Jesus gives out communion to the audience and says “Body of Me.” (As a good Catholic boy, I said Amen and blessed myself before tweeting a pic of my host.)
As someone who considers myself a renowned teetotaler, I have minimal experience with marijuana. I think I got a contact high at a Carlos Santana concert once. Come to think of it, anyone within a five-mile radius of any Santana concert probably caught a contact high. And even though I have no real strong feelings about “the stuff” either way, I certainly have no desires for my daughters to someday engage in a world of hoarse laughter and a fascination with every Dorito flavor known to man. But chronic munchies would be nothing compared to one very scary “fact” I learned from this show, one I would never wish upon any of my fellow parental colleagues:
“People addicted to reefer develop potty mouths.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Jose Stage Company presents “Reefer Madness”
Book, music and lyrics by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney
Directed by Tony Kelly
The Word: A beautiful blending of many styles, wonderful choreo and irreverent fun make this show an extension-worthy hit parade.
Stars: 4 out of 4
Through July 28th
Tickets range from $16.50 – $45
San Jose Stage Company
490 S. First St., San Jose, CA 95113
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes with an intermission
For tickets, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org