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Drugged-out zombies? Unbridled, promiscuous sex? Murder? Mayhem? Gotta be “Reefer Madness!”




Jimmy is greeted by Sally at his first visit to Jack and Mae’s Reefer Den. FROM LEFT: Steve O’Dea as Jack, Vera Samuels as Sally, Jason Ellis as Jimmy and Caitlin Ellis as Mae. COURTESY PHOTO

Jimmy is greeted by Sally at his first visit to Jack and Mae’s Reefer Den. FROM LEFT: Steve O’Dea as Jack, Vera Samuels as Sally, Jason Ellis as Jimmy and Caitlin Ellis as Mae. COURTESY PHOTO

Don’t take a toke — get a ticket.

“Reefer Madness: The Musical” is returning to the Venice Theatre (running through Oct. 8).

“What other show has zombies, cannibalism, tap dancing and FDR?” asks director Kelly Wynn Woodland.

The musical’s based on the 1936 propaganda film about the dangers of marijuana. The film, commissioned and produced by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, warned against the evils of weed. If you take a puff, the movie suggests, it can lead to wild orgies, a life of crime, insanity, murder and suicide.

The film was created as a cautionary tale. But by the 1970s, audiences viewed it as a satire. Like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” it became a cult favorite.

Woodland recalls attending midnight showings while a student at Florida State.

“We’d watch it and laugh our heads off,” she recalls. “They were serious when they made it (in 1936). Holy cow! It’s about how marijuana turns this fine, upstanding young couple into homicidal sex fiends. It’s ridiculously funny — and there are a lot of people who will see it over and over again.”

LEFT: Jack (Steve O’Dea), the drug pusher, and his gal pal Mae (Caitlin Ellis), hostess of the Reefer Den. RIGHT: Jimmy Harper (Jason Ellis) and Mary Lane (Shannon Maloney) portray the innocent kids who are about to be corrupted by “the demon weed” in “Reefer Madness.” COURTESY PHOTOS

LEFT: Jack (Steve O’Dea), the drug pusher, and his gal pal Mae (Caitlin Ellis), hostess of the Reefer Den. RIGHT: Jimmy Harper (Jason Ellis) and Mary Lane (Shannon Maloney) portray the innocent kids who are about to be corrupted by “the demon weed” in “Reefer Madness.” COURTESY PHOTOS

In 1998, Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney turned it into a musical, with Murphy writing the book and lyrics and Studney writing the music. When it premiered in Los Angeles, it was expected to have only a two-week run. But it ran to sold-out houses for a year-and-ahalf, winning numerous awards. The musical opened off-Broadway in 2001, but its run was interrupted by the 9/11 terror attacks.

In 2005, a movie of the musical was made for Showtime.

Venice Theatre produced “Reefer Madness: The Musical” in 2009, and now a new production is back due to popular demand.

This is Woodland’s third time directing the musical, her second for Venice Theatre.

You don’t have to indulge to enjoy the musical. (Cannabis is legal in Florida for medicinal purposes.)

“This go round, it’s so relevant to so many issues that are going on in our community and the state of Florida and in the country,” Woodland says. “They felt it was a good time to do it and asked me (to direct.)”

 

 

The 1936 movie, she says, was released as a warning, “a giant public service announcement. It was dead serious. It is chock full of racist references. It’s egregious.”

For example, she says, the word marijuana began being used during this era because there was a backlash against Mexicans.

“They used the Spanish name to make it sound ‘scary,’” she says. “They also equated it with evil jazz musicians.

“The musical was developed in the late ’90s based on the movie, to parody this propaganda film.”

It’s particularly relevant now, she says, because the basis of the film is the politics of fear.

“They wanted to make people afraid that Black people were going to rape their women, that musicians will take over. It is a very thinly veiled allegory of the politics of fear that are being resurrected in this country by certain political elements.”

The show is so hallucinatory, she says, adding that the first number is full of zombies. (Jesus, FDR and the Statue of Liberty also appear in this musical.)

“The premise of it is that these two all-American sweethearts, Jim and Mary, are led to ruin by this one puff of marijuana,” Woodland explains.

“The Lecturer comes to this community meeting because of the dire problem of cannabis in their community. He’s telling them all of these horrible things (that happen to Jim and Mary, as a result). And we act out what happens to the two American kids. …

“And they do hallucinate quite a bit and become sex fiends. Mary becomes a very enthusiastic sex fiend. It’s funny — but, also, yikes!”

Woodland describes Tim Wisgerhof ’s set design as “kind of like a fun house, a reefer fun house. You look at it and go, ‘That’s cool,’ and then you go, ‘That’s scary.’ The artwork is absolutely stunning. He gave us so much, as performers, to play with the space and the levels and the little effects, peculiarities about the set that I don’t want to give away.”

The musical, she says, is very complicated, very smart and clever.

“Satire’s a facilitator, because it’s non-threatening in appearance,” Woodland says. “It’s a sneaky facilitator of ideas that people might not consider in another form. It goes back to Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ and Charles Dickens. It makes people think about issues that are uncomfortable to them. You laugh, you’re entertained — and then it smacks you. That’s one of the functions of satire and allegory.

“‘Reefer Madness: The Musical’ is very much a thinking person’s comedy. Like a lot of satire, you can enjoy it just because it’s funny and ridiculous. But the more you know, the more entertaining it is. You’ll know the references and allusions in there.

“Ridiculousness populates the comedy of this musical,” Woodland declares. “It’s hilarious.”

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