Sunday, June 9, 2013

San Jose Stage Company: "Reefer Madness"

June 8, 2013

The musical version of "Reefer Madness" is so over-the-top looney, a first-timer might miss the very serious discussion going on beneath the farce. It all goes back to 1930, when the Treasury Department established the Bureau of Narcotics, and a young up-and-comer named Harold Anslinger saw an opportunity to make his career: an all-out war on a newly popular drug named marijuana.

Anslinger had a hard time getting his enterprise off the ground, but he soon found a rather powerful ally: William Randolph Hearst, who hated Mexicans, who saw hemp as a threat to his investments in tree-based paper products, and who had enough newspapers to make his lies work. (Any similarity to Fox current entities War on Terror are completely Koch Brothers apt.) Their partnership was helped tremendously by the use of the drug among black jazz musicians, and the ever-fertile ground of American racism.

Anslinger hit the peak of his daring in 1936 by funding an educational film titled "Tell Your Children: Reefer Madness." Over the years, however, the film's over-the-top fearmongering made it a cult classic among the very people it was attempting to vilify. The most ridiculous of Anslinger's claims was that pot would turn you into a homicidal maniac. "Marijuana," quoth he, "is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind... You smoke a joint and you're likely to kill your brother."

San Jose Stage's production is based on the movie musical written and composed by Dan Studney. It takes the extremes of the film and ups the ante. The earnest narration (by the excellent Galen Murphy-Hoffman) and the uber-erotic atmosphere give the show a "Rocky Horror" edge that adds to the delicious fun. It doesn't hurt that the cast is tremendously hot (both cheesecake and beefcake), and that Jean Cardinale has come up with some awesome costumery.

I had imagined that the score might stick to period jazz, but Studney wanders freely, indulging in some funk wah-wah, a Doors quote, a little Santana here, a little Handel there. Basically, whatever he needs. The choreography by Brittany Blankenship and Carmichael "CJ" Blankenship is wild and inventive, and director Tony Kelly gets a tremendous amount of energy and sharpness from his cast. The performers are backed by a four-piece combo that interacts with the characters and gives the score a solid feeling of immediacy. The principals are all pretty great, but Will Springhorn, Jr. reaches a Belushi-esque level of bombasticness as the fried college boy Ralph.

Through June 30, San Jose Stage, 490 South First St., San Jose. $16.50-$45. 408/283-7142,

Photo by Dave Lepori.

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