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‘Reefer’ receives high marks

With September designated “National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month,” as well as the constant bombardment of images and stories pertaining to addiction in the media, the advent of Reefer Madness: The Musical couldn’t have been better timed.

The off-Broadway hit musical comedy, written by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney and brought to the local stage by MAD Theatre of Tampa, is based on the 1936 cult classic, Reefer Madness. Although originally created by a church group to educate parents about the dangers of marijuana use, Reefer Madness was later re-edited for the exploitation market, where its over-the-top acting, low production values and inclusion of excessive drug use, sex and violence were favored.

The story begins in a high school auditorium, where the school principal is talking to concerned parents and community leaders about the dangers of marijuana, encouraging them to “take up arms” against the “leafy green assassin, an assassin of youth.” It’s Nov. 5, 1936. Many people were still unaware of drugs and their effects, yet began to get caught up in the hysteria created by the solicitous headlines dominating Hearst newspapers, such as “Dope peddlers caught in high school,” and “School-parent organizations join dope fight.”

Marijuana users were believed to be plagued by sexual perversions, violent tendencies, insanity and worst of all, uncontrollable laughter. Reefer was thought to turn all-American teenagers into

“hooligans and whores.”

The original film version of Reefer Madness exploited these fears throughout the film. It made direct connections between smoking a joint and vehicular homicide, rape and murder, not to mention piano playing at top speeds.

Although these topics don’t seem like fodder for a successful musical, they are.

Unlike the film version, Reefer Madness: The Musical is full of humorous song lyrics, inventive costumes and great choreography. For the most part, the basic plot line and characters are the same. However, the musical version takes great liberties which results in interesting additions, such as the title song, “Reefer Madness,” set to a zombie sequence, full of ripped costumes and choreography reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s music video Thriller. The comparison of marijuana users to zombies is an unforgettable one.

Other additions to look for are a Marilyn Monroe look-alike who sells her baby for dope money and runs over an old man (because “it serves him right for trying to jump over the car like that”), a singing Jesus

wearing a gold cape, munchies-based cannibalism and pasties shaped like

marijuana leaves.

The main characters of the musical are Jimmy Harper (who is actually a combination of characters Bill Harper and Jimmy Lane from the film) and Mary Lane (a name chosen for its similarity to marijuana’s common nickname “Mary Jane”).

Harper is played by none other than USF student Ricky Cona, who is a junior majoring in communications. Although not involved with USF’s theater department, Cona is a community theater regular. In fact, Reefer Madness: The Musical is Cona’s fourth production with MAD Theatre.

Lane is played by Melissa Brown, recent graduate from the University of Tampa with a degree in musical theater. Cona and Brown are a couple in real life, which could explain their great chemistry on stage. Their youthful exuberance, combined with their all-American looks and portrayal of innocence gone

tragically wrong, is a rare find – especially in community

theater.

It’s unfortunate that the

acting skills of Cona and Brown did not rub off on Ed Greer, who plays Jack, the local dope peddler who spends his time turning kids into junkies. Greer’s acting seemed a bit contrived and his dancing was tense and unnatural. It’s too bad that he didn’t learn to hold a gun as well as he did a joint.

Although Reefer Madness is often thought of as an anti-marijuana propaganda film favored by potheads, it really isn’t about marijuana, according to director S.P. Riordan. “It’s about fear,” said Riordan. “It’s about scaring people that aren’t a part of the marijuana culture, scaring them into being afraid of something they don’t know.”

Besides fear, Reefer Madness is also a critique on the public’s reliance on the news media, which breeds fear through spinning stories. Historically, the correlation between the use of marijuana and an increase in crime has been exaggerated to sell papers.

A little-known fact about Reefer Madness is that it is based on a true-life crime story that happened here in Tampa. In 1933, Victor Licata used an ax to kill his mother, father, sister and two brothers after smoking marijuana. Although it was later found that Licata was mentally ill, the damage was already done. Marijuana was blamed for the crime, and the cult classic, Reefer Madness, was born.

Regardless of whether you’re a pot smoker or a square, Reefer Madness: The Musical is a must-see.

Reefer Madness: The Musical plays at 8 p.m. Sept. 14-15 and Sept. 26-29 at the Ritz Theatre, 1503 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City. Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 at the door. For more info call (813)786-6291 or go to www.madtheatre.com.