Maverick Theater is taking back the truth about Miss Mary Jane as part of their 20th season.
By Libby Nicolay
The year is 1936. America is still reeling in the midst of the Great Depression. Meanwhile, the invention of television is just beginning to gain traction. Widespread poverty has led to fear and resentment, and it eventually led to the famed Reefer Madness, an anti-marijuana propaganda film created to warn people about the “devil weed” sweeping America and leading teens down into a life of sin and death. The film intended to illustrate the dangers of smoking pot - that the “leafy green assassin” will surely lead to suicide or murder or rape, and that eventually, you’ll spiral down into inevitable madness… Right?
Well, the film caught wind again in the 1970s, becoming an ironic cult classic and popular midnight movie amongst cannabis culture. The new, weed-friendly America saw it as a massive joke, and the film was effectively inducted into the collective “worst movies of all time” list, often still getting lumped together with some of the other infamous “worst evers” like Planet 9 From Outer Space or Alone In The Dark.
In 1998, Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney saw an opportunity and satirized the already-absurd film into a hilarious musical comedy, Reefer Madness: The Musical. Featuring a stern Lecturer teaching a group of nice, upstanding kids about the perils of the devil weed, we watch each of their lives instantly fall apart under its grip until they inevitably crumble into criminal, lowlife degeneracy. The show features hit numbers like “Little Mary Sunshine,” where we see the wholesome and chaste young Mary Lane be suddenly transformed into a sadomasochist after merely one hit of the drug.
The show first premiered in 1999 at the Hudson Theatre in Santa Monica, notching five Ovation Awards before its later Off-Broadway stint. The thought of paying homage to a play whose birthright is in Southern California was one of the ideas that inspired the show’s director – and Maverick’s Artistic Director – Brian Newell to bring this musical back for Maverick’s 20th season after staging it in 2009.
Newell has long been known to produce shows at Maverick that are based on screenplays or public domain films like Reefer Madness in hopes of bringing theatre to a new audience. Newell said he started Maverick back in 2002 with the intention of it becoming a “gateway” for those who don’t go to the theatre. “I try to program shows that will introduce them to the theatre experience,” he explained, and when they come back for more, Newell will “introduce them to more traditional plays.”
So, what led Newell toward Reefer Madness for this season? He mentioned a parallel between the misinformation stemming from America’s weed hysteria and that of today’s pandemic. He sees this musical as a social commentary on the effects of misinformation when coupled with widespread fear and a hyper-connected world. “I thought, this is a perfect time with all the disinformation that’s going on throughout this pandemic,” he said. “It’s a mirror reflection of that.”
It is worth noting that marijuana prohibition and its criminalization has racist origins in America, the problematic stereotypes of which are on display in the original 1936 film. 21st-century remakes and spoofs like this one can be important in seeing how far our society has come, especially now as marijuana legalization laws continue to be reconsidered. However, although we may be quick to laugh and gawk at the absurdity of the original Reefer Madness, perhaps we may not be as far removed from all the madness as we might think.
As for this production, Newell is hoping to use pure comedy to entertain and to also shed some light on a still often-touchy subject. In keeping with Maverick’s mission to widen theatre audiences, this show is meant for anyone who can find the funny in the madness. “It’s a great date night or just a night out to get away for some fun entertainment,” he said. And perhaps, in the midst of all the hilarity, audiences will be able to reflect on what is truly worth fearing and how we can best respond to change as our world continues to ebb and flow.
Libby Nicolay is a writer, literary manager, and local theater enthusiast working in the entertainment industry throughout Orange County.
Maverick Theater, 118 E. Walnut St., Fullerton
June 10-July 17. Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 6 p.m.