If you’ve noticed a slightly funny odor coming from the Hobby Center this week it might be because the fall theater season is here and the dudes and dudettes at TUTS Underground are chillaxing with a (figurative, we swear) puff of reefer, Reefer Madness that is.
The edgy, sometimes murderous, sometimes stoner, little sibling of Houston musical staple, Theatre Under the Stars, TUTS Underground is beginning its second season with this so-intentionally-bad-it’s-good, marijuana trip of a musical. But is this the fall show for you?
"It’s a serious conversation in our society today, just as serious as legalization of liquor was during prohibition time."
I saw Reefer Madness last week and talked to TUTS artistic director and Reefer director Bruce Lumpkin for the inside scoop. So light one — if you’re reading this in Colorado — and trip out as I foresee and then answer all your Reefer questions.
Like every other musical out of Broadway today, is this one based on a beloved movie?
Yes and no. The musical, with book and lyrics by Kevin Murphy and book and music by Dan Studney is rather loosely based on the 1936 black and white propaganda film Tell Your Children, later Reefer Madness. In the hour-long, utterly earnest movie, impeccable dressed, three-piece suit wearing pot pushers entice innocent high school students, who all appear to be in their late thirties, into a hell-scape of marijuana and jazz music.
The story is ludicrous. The acting is atrocious. The colorization will haunt your dreams and the images of the reefer induced dancing will sear into your brain. Death might be your only relief from the memories.
The movie is so bad that a near century of irony built up between then and now has gained it a cult following.
So the writers didn’t set out to put a beloved storyline to music for the theater?
Hardly, but you might sense a kind of lingering fondness for the original movie and its creators when you see the play.
“The writers of the show, who are very clever people, took something that has become funny and have made something funnier out of it, so I think in a way it is a celebration of the original film,” Lumpkin says.
How does unintentionally bad acting translate to the stage?
Pretty well, actually. When I saw the play, the whole cast looked great, but they might need a quick diet after the run, they’re intentionally chewing so much scenery.
When I ask Lumpkin if it’s difficult to direct deliberately exaggerated acting he says most of it’s down to the casting.
“You have to find people who can do that," he notes. "This cast is a local cast, but this group we’ve put together, it’s almost like doing a Second City or Saturday Night Live group. There’s a lot of improvisation, a lot of humor that comes from the actors themselves . . .
"They brought so much to the table.”
I am easily offended by sacred religious figures depicted in even the slightest sacrilegious way. Should I see this musical?
I have always wondered what Jesus would look like wearing only a gold lamé loincloth that might, at any moment, slip off his well-defined hip bones. Should I see this musical?
Buy a ticket for every performance.
The legalization of recreational marijuana is one the most important issue of our time, and I have pertinent questions and profound insights I wish to voice about this matter. Should I see this musical?
Yes, but coat check your moral certainty at the Thursday performance, aka Law & Order night, and then pick it back up before the after show talkback discussion begins. The expert panel includes Judge Sherman Ross, County Criminal Court 10; Judge Michael McSpadden, 209th District Court; Harris County CSCD director Dr. Teresa May; Channel 13 reporter Ted Oberg and attorney Joel Androphy acting as moderator.
Lumpkin hopes the first, best thing the audience experiences during the show is “a good time in the theater,” but does think even outrageous shows like Reefer Madness can spark dialogue about the issues.
“It’s a serious conversation in our society today, just as serious as legalization of liquor was during prohibition time,” he says. “The walls are breaking down with states like Colorado having done this. It opens up a conversation that has very serious, intelligent points on both sides and that’s what I think will come out of the Law & Order night.”
Wow, that is so cool . . . Wait, I forgot what we were talking about. What’s this TUTS Underground thingie?
A year ago, Theatre Under the Stars debuted a second, more risque, musical season to run on the Zilkha stage. They started strong but ran into controversy at the end of last season, when the production of Hands on a Hardbody was abruptly canceled in a contract dispute after unauthorized changes were made. Still, Lumpkin believes the first season was a success.
“I think we’re on the right track, but it’s a growing process,” he tells me.
He’s also ready for TUTS Underground to be a force for the development of new plays and is looking ahead to the world premiere of Waiting for Johnny Depp.
“I found that project,” he says. “The ladies, who wrote it, and I have a very good relationship. It’s going to be a lot of fun because we’re developing something here together.”
Awesome. I’m hungry. Do you have any Doritos?
Reefer Madness runs through Sunday at the Hobby Center.