Chico State theater department goes hilariously to pot

Actors Lacy Stephens, Eric Gateno (middle) and Michael Bram give in to the high life in Reefer Madness.

Actors Lacy Stephens, Eric Gateno (middle) and Michael Bram give in to the high life in Reefer Madness.

Photo courtesy of Chico State

Reefer Madness: The Musical, final showing tonight (Nov. 19), 7:30 p.m., in Wismer Theatre.
Tickets: $6-$15
Wismer Theatre
Chico State campus

Certain authorities assert that ingesting marijuana enhances one’s appreciation of music and art, heightens one’s wit and sense of humor and anesthetizes both physical and psychological pain. Others assert that imbibing marijuana flattens one’s emotional affect and sense of personal responsibility, dulls motivation, curbs creativity and may result in despondence, dependence or even psychosis. Chico State’s Department of Music and Theatre’s musical production of Reefer Madness: The Musical plays these diametrically opposed views against each other, and the result leans pretty heavily in support of the former.

The play is based on the 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film, Reefer Madness, which lured audiences using such sensationalistic slogans as, “Women cry for it—men die for it!” The original, church-sponsored film was revived as an unintentionally campy satire by pro-pot movie fans in the 1970s, and became a cult favorite and midnight movie staple.

This musical adaptation by collaborators Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney takes that satirical element to heights never intended by the original producers of the film, but does so by sticking with the basic story and melodramatic approach to the topic. Clean-cut, all-American teenager Jimmy Harper (Eric Gateno) and his saddle-shoed, sausage-curled blonde sweetheart Mary Lane (Michelle Moore), are lured into the downward spiral of the reefer-smoking life by the nefarious and abusive Jack (Eric Dobson), proprietor of the Reefer Den. His abused, addicted and degraded moll, Mae (Lara Tenckhoff), presides over the smoky Den, inhabited by the fidgety, hysterically giggling college dropout Ralph (Michael Bram) and negligent, stoned-out teen mother/prostitute Sally (Lacy Stephens).

Introducing the characters from a mobile podium, the Lecturer (brilliantly done by quick-change artist Tyler Campbell, who shape-shifts into a satanic satyr, a soda jerk and a wheelchair-bound FDR, as narrative action demands) initially presents their story as a documentary illustrating his lecture. The opening production number, “Reefer Madness,” brings out the dance ensemble and vocal chorus in zombie regalia, and Wismer Theatre’s in-the-round staging is fully exploited by Sheree Henning’s choreography as dancers emerge seemingly from the theater’s seating to take over the central stage. Studney’s music—which morphs seamlessly between swinging jazz, show-tune smarminess and heavy rock in a manner reminiscent of soundtrack composer Danny Elfman’s days as Oingo Boingo frontman—is played live by an excellent band above the main stage.

The cleverly paced episodic narrative is punctuated by a Placard Girl (Cassandra Gutierrez), whose job is to present the audience with such moralistic cues as “Reefer gets you raped, and you won’t care!” in reference to Mae and the abusive Jack, and “Taking a hit of reefer makes you sell your babies—for drug money!” in reference to wayward pothead mother Sally’s doing just that.

Reefer Madness presents many scenes and laughs, but highlights include appearances by a self-righteous, singing and dancing Jesus (a wigged and bearded Dobson), who appears after Jimmy has stolen money from church to support his habit, and Mary Lane’s transformation from school-girl innocent to raging dominatrix after puffing her first joint. Her transformation and subsequent domination of would-be seducer Ralph hilariously turns the tables on an ill-intentioned creeper in a manner that many a young woman can, if not relate to from personal experience, at least appreciate.

The grand finale offers satirical glimpses of American patriotism, Christian heaven and the U.S. penal system, with cast and supporting ensemble bedecked in Sandy Barton’s costume designs, which reflect the 1930s-era aesthetic of the original black-and-white movie brought into sparkling color.

With its cast packed with excellent singers and dancers, its beautifully crafted staging and its comical presentation of themes and scenes that any university student can relate to and laugh at, it’s no wonder that Reefer Madness (which ends tonight, Nov. 19) has been selling out each night. It sets a literal and figurative high bar for all future productions.