The motion picture Reefer Madness has spent so much time as a camp classic that it's sometimes easy to forget it was once presented with a straight face in 1936 as an educational film financed outside of the studio system, before being recut into different versions and re-released all across the land by notorious exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper.
The genre of the "social hygiene" film spanned from roughly the dawn of talkies into the '50s and '60s, although most were 15-minute, classroom-ready shorts covering everything from dating etiquette to driver safety. Naturally, the dangers of drug use remained a favorite topic and it's doubtful there's a one among you who didn't spend a rained-out junior high school gym class subjected to one of these one-reelers.
Once Reefer Madness fell into the public domain in the 1970s, it earned new life as an object of ridicule at midnight showings or on home video, showing as it does how a few tokes on the devil weed can send youth down a spiral of depravity involving thievery, murder and even maniacally paced piano playing. A musical production was inevitable. And now the 1998 collaboration between Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney on the book and music comes to North Coast Repertory Theatre under the able directing hand of Daniel Kennedy.
As a musical production, Reefer Madness has some great pep, even if one of its central kitschy conceits — pot really, really isn't going to cause you to murder your loved ones — was played out back around the time of the Ford administration. The story follows wholesome 1930s-era teens Jimmy Harper (Dante Gelormino) and Mary Lane (Jessie Rawson), an aw-shucks, love-struck pair fond of sharing phosphates down at the local five-and-dime. But also in this universe are reefer pusher Jack (Chris Hamby) and his common-law wife Mae (Veronica Ruse), respectively bearing the calling cards of the era's shady no-goodniks: a pencil-thin mustache and a sassily bright-red dress. While the latter is more content to sell the green weed to older customers, Jack has his eyes on the soda fountain patrons. His mind is on the fact on the jukebox down there plays the likes of Cab Calloway and Fats Waller — just the sort of seductive tunes that lure one to his product.
Reefer Madness is enlivened throughout by musical numbers that draw on the decades of its setting and later, with great work from the cast and accompanying ensemble, and excellent choreography. The play is introduced and then propelled along by appearances behind a lectern by the Lecturer (Warren Hardison), who speaks to the audience about events afoot, and the narrative is assisted by a succession dancers bearing placards warnings about the dangers of a life given over to the evil herb.
As Mary, Rawson (recently seen in Ferndale Rep's Legally Blonde) makes use of a great singing voice and an impressive physicality dealing with some of the elaborate bits in the production. In the other lead as Jimmy, newcomer Gelormino delivers a fine performance, as does Danielle Merri as Sally, the sassy, jazz-loving hanger-on at Jack and Mae's den of iniquity. All three, along with the rest of the cast, are particularly great in such numbers as "Down at the ol' Five and Dime" and "Little Mary Sunshine," and costume designer Laura Rhinehart triumphs in everything from flashy post-Jazz Age dresses to dancers covered in nothing but pot leaves. To say nothing of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jesus and an anthropomorphized brownie, who all show up because, well, why not?
The modern world, this county and California, with the legality of pot looming, is far from the world that gave us the flickering frames of the original Reefer Madness. Dialing things all the way back to an era when marijuana was so out of the mainstream is a bit refreshing. In a time when pot leaves are teetering toward becoming a corporate brand on billions of dollars of merchandise, there's respite in seeing it all in a world of silly, fun song and dance. And really, that's not too much to ask.
Reefer Madness plays at the North Coast Repertory Theatre on Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through June 18, with a Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., on May 29, June 5 and June 12 and a Thursday evening show on June 16 at 8 p.m. Call 442-NCRT or visit www.ncrt.net.
Dell'Arte International students bring a rapid-fire roster of 10-minute plays to the Carlo Theatre for The Finals at 8 p.m. May 26 through 28. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.
The Mad River Festival opens with The Big Thirst on June 16. The play, a comedic mystery written by Joan Schirle, dips into water drama between political figures, wildlife farmers and more. The show runs through July 3. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.
The White Snake slithers onto the Ferndale Repertory Theatre stage for a preview on June 16 and runs through July 10. The play is drawn from a Chinese folktale and promises live music, puppets and fantastical sets. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.