The year is 1938. As the play opens, the Lecturer, a stern authority figure, informs the audience of the new drug menace, "marihuana", which threatens the American way of life. (His warnings are reinforced by the Placard Girl, who throughout the play holds up large signs that clearly state scenes' moral lessons.) From his podium, the Lecturer warns the audience that action must be taken immediately, before the Good Ol' U.S.A. succumbs to the Demon Weed ("Reefer Madness"). The Lecturer illustrates his point, introducing us to Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane, a lovable pair of wholesome teens who hold hands, sip hot cocoa, and think pure thoughts while studying Shakespeare for English class ("Romeo and Juliet").
The Lecturer then shows us the seamier side of life at the Reefer Den, populated by drug-addled Denizens of the Night. We meet Mae, the Reefer Den hostess, who is abused by her slick, pusher boyfriend Jack. She'd leave him, but Jack keeps her supplied with the marijuana she craves ("The Stuff"), despite his physical abuse.
The Lecturer brings us now to the five and dime, a local teen hangout where wholesome kids indulge in the risqué rhythms of "swing-jazz" music, as performed by Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and other "ginger-colored agents of evil" ("Down at the Ol' Five and Dime"). The Lecturer assumes the guise of kindly Mr. Poppy, the singing and dancing proprietor.
Jack, trolling for youthful victims, arrives at the five and dime, where he meets Jimmy and lures him back to the Reefer Den to experience "a real party". There, Jimmy encounters Ralph, a psychotic ex-college student who communicates primarily with cackling, maniacal laughter. He also meets Sally, a reefer slut who both supports her love child and pays for her habit with the only currency she possesses - her generously proportioned body. Jimmy is pressured into taking his first hit of marihuana ("Jimmy Takes a Hit") and tastes the forbidden fruits of sensual abandon in a wild hallucinatory dance sequence featuring weird sex, belly dancers, fire eaters, and Goat-Man, a frightening satyr played by the Lecturer ("The Orgy").
Over the next few weeks, we watch Jimmy make a terrifying transition from "good egg" to "bad apple". He mouths off to his parents, brutalizes a puppy, and even attempts to tongue-kiss a shocked Mary, sending her running off in tears. Alone in church, Mary prays that her sweetheart will regain his senses and return to her ("Lonely Pew").
Later, Jimmy and Ralph break into the church to steal from the poor box. While Ralph goes off to smoke some frankincense, Jimmy suddenly receives a heavenly vision...Jesus Christ himself! Flanked by a chorus of singing cherubim, Jesus (played by Jack) warns Jimmy (in a Tom Jones-style production number) to kick his reefer habit or suffer eternal damnation ("Listen to Jesus, Jimmy"). Jimmy scoffs at the Son of God's message. Angels weep.
Back at the Reefer Den, Jimmy is completely out of control. A desperate Mae warns Jimmy to avoid her own mistakes - he must escape the Reefer Den while he is still able. The drug-addled Jimmy, however, won't listen. Even the revelation that Sally has sold her baby for drug money fails to snap him out of it. Sally's baby (played by Ralph) appears and sings a plaintive solo ("Lullaby").
Jimmy's bad behavior culminates with his stealing Mary's Packard and taking it for a reckless, reefer-induced joyride with Sally. His joy, however, proves short-lived - Sally, who is driving, runs over a helpless old man crossing the street, killing him.
Finally shocked out of his reefer haze, Jimmy returns the stolen Packard to Mary's house and apologizes to her, pledging his love ("Mary Jane/Mary Lane".) They kiss. Before he can give her his school ring as a token of his undying love, a siren sounds in the distance. The fugitive Jimmy realizes that he must get far away from Mary lest he bring her down with him. He runs off into the night with no explanation. Mary doesn't know the exact nature of Jimmy's demons, but she vows he will not face them alone. She drives her Packard into the night in search of "her poor lost Romeo".
Meanwhile, back at the Reefer Den, Jack and Mae hear a radio broadcast announcing the hit-and-run accident. Police are looking for a young man in a late-model Packard. Jack, fearing Jimmy will get arrested and lead the cops back to him, grabs a pistol and ominously vows to bring Jimmy back to the Reefer Den - "one way or another" ("Act I Finale").
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Famous quotes containing the word act:
“It is in the very nature of things human that every act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past.”
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