A Catholic school theater director is helping lead a downtown Minneapolis play unlikely to debut at his school.
Steven Meerdink, a St. Louis Park resident who teaches at at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, is the artistic director of “Reefer Madness” through his work with a theater company he helped found with fellow St. Louis Park resident Kevin Hanson.
Minneapolis Musical Theatre is presenting the off-Broadway musical spoofing a 1936 movie renamed “Reefer Madness” after an original release under the name “Tell Your Children.” The film, which developed a cult following in late-night theater showings, warned in dramatic fashion that marijuana posed a menace more dangerous than heroin.
A foreword in the film warns, “The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you. It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly-increasing numbers. Marihuana is that drug – a violent narcotic – an unspeakable scourge – The Real Public Enemy Number One!”
The introduction predicts use of the drug will lead to “acts of shocking violence… ending often in incurable insanity.”
The film further warns of its shocking content, saying, “In picturing its soul-destroying effects no attempt was made to equivocate … If their stark reality will make you think, will make you aware that something must be done to wipe out this ghastly menace, then the picture will not have failed in its purpose … Because the dread marihuana may be reaching forth next for your son or daughter … or yours … or YOURS!”
The film depicts a series of horrific deaths in its plot.
“It was really put together in terms we understand as a propaganda movie about this horrible, horrible drug that was going to bring America to its knees – it was going to destroy us,” Meerdink said. “It was all I could do to sit through it.”
He found the play to be a creative satire, though.
“The theater version is pure fun because it’s poking fun at (the movie) and having a lot of fun with the over-the-top style and characters that are all overblown,” Meerdink said. “It’s a silly show.”
The organizers picked the selection before voters in Washington state and Colorado voted to legalize marijuana last November. However, the overall political controversy surrounding the legalization issue played a role, Meerdink said.
“Obviously, the debate has been out there for a long time,” Meerdink said. “It is becoming more and more prevalent. We thought this would be a great time to bring this out.”
Meerdink does not sport a NORML bumper sticker on his car, though. He and Minneapolis Musical Theatre take no position on the legalization issue, he said.
Still, he said he encouraged parental guidance for “Reefer Madness” as the play contains suggestive scenes.
“Even though there’s nothing with the message, they may not want them to be exposed to this type of subject matter in this way,” Meerdink said. “I think they’d probably want to see the show before they show it to the kids. I can see why people would possibly object to having their kids at it.”
Actors will not smoke any substance of any kind during the play, Meerdink said. Prop cigarettes creating the illusion of smoking will be used, though.
Minneapolis Musical Theatre has a history of taking on topics a bit more extreme than would be typical at a Totino-Grace, Meerdink said.
“We have to be a little more conservative there, but I get to do this more outrageous theater with Minneapolis Musical Theatre,” Meerdink said.
Minneapolis Musical Theatre became the third theater company in the United States to purchase the rights to “Jerry Springer: The Opera.” Another Minneapolis Musical Theatre selection, “Zana, Don’t!” imagined a world in which most people were gay and straight individuals were outcasts. “Evil Dead The Musical” featured “blood spraying everywhere,” including a “splatter zone” where audience members would find themselves immersed in the production.
“Those are the kind of things people kind of expect out of us,” Meerdink said.
Of “Reefer Madness,” he said, “it’s the quirky, over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek type of show I think people have come to know us for.”
Minneapolis Musical Theatre formed a partnership with Hennepin Theatre Trust, the owner of the Orpheum, State, Pantages and New Century theaters in downtown Minneapolis. The theater company will now perform plays at the New Century Theatre inside City Center.
Meerdink said he believes his theater company’s history of offbeat theater helped attract the trust’s attention. Sales in advance of the first performance of “Reefer Madness” outpaced all past Minneapolis Musical Theatre shows.
The play began in Los Angeles in 1999 before arriving off-Broadway in 2001. A 2005 movie with Alan Cumming, Kristen Bell, Neve Campbell and Ana Gasteyer depicted the musical.
A Hennepin Theatre Trust description of the play states, “Inspired by the original 1936 film, this satirical morality tale is a depiction of clean-cut kids lured into a hysterical downward spiral by the evil weed, jazz, sex and violence.”
It includes such tunes as “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy” featuring an angelic chorus of show girls.
It’s that kind of show.
The production runs through Sunday, Feb. 24, at New Century Theatre, 615 Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis. Tickets are $24-29 and may be purchased in person at the theater, online at HennepinTheatreTrust.org or through Ticketmaster.