Photo by Michael LamontIT MAY SEEM STRANGE, BUT A SONG-CYCLE TRIBUTE to the decade-old Tian An Men Square protests (Beijing Spring) and a slick musical lampoon of '30s anti-dope flicks (Reefer Madness!) are actually inverted renditions of the same play. Both are about the passions of youth stifled by the habits and vested interests of their elders: It's the Chinese students against their hard-line Communist leaders, and American youth against an anti-marijuana disinformation campaign dating back 60 years — largely spawned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in order to protect his wood-pulp industries from the burgeoning hemp-paper trade of his era.
Beijing may be as earnest as Reefer is irreverent, yet both bubble to the surface from the same wellspring of disenchantment with “the authorities” in particular and with authority in general. Reefer appears goofier, though in fact it strikes deeper veins of generational conflict with its satirical scalpel, albeit muting its contempt with some impressive jitterbugging and lindy-hopping. Beijing, on the other hand, is all reminders of how important it is, and how noble the cause of the protesting students, though it's not terribly clear from the material what, exactly, that cause is. (More on this later.) All of which, along with those headphone mikes that make the actors look like telephone operators, leaves Beijing feeling a bit like Rent, but without the charisma.
UPON ENTERING THE HUDSON THEATER AT THE late-night curtain time for Reefer Madness! — and assuming it's just as crowded as on the night I attended — you'll find yourself in a line near the box office, waiting to be escorted through mazelike corridors to what's called the Hudson Backstage. A Lecturer (Harry S. Murphy) — a spit-and-polish authority figure in a three-piece suit — tells us in condescending, thunderous tones that we're to follow him while staying “quiet as church mice” (the first time I've heard that expression since the fourth grade). In that little patronizing moment, and the queasiness it elicits, the production makes its point: Authority is creepy. To enjoy the show, you need to like this point, because that's pretty much what the evening's about. The entire event is a kind of protest, not in support of hemp, but against the dubious motives of fathers who presume to know best.
On John David Paul's storybook set, we follow the journey (narrated by the Lecturer) of cherubic high school innocent Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell), lured from a soda fountain by alum Jack (Robert Torti) into a reefer den, where, after a puff or two, Jimmy swiftly turns into a gargoyle: demented, horny and prone to fits of insane laughter. If only he'd been living in the '80s instead of the '30s, he could have just said no.
With book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, lyrics by the former and music by the latter, the satire is all in director Andy Fickman's gleefully insolent style, honed with campy precision, and supported by Michael Goorjian's ebullient choreography and Dick Magnanti's whimsical costumes.
Unlike the litany of bad-movie parodies that have populated local stages over the years, with their spit-wad assaults upon pop culture, most of them put on by Theater-A-Go-Go! (Valley of the Dolls, The Poseidon Adventure — The Musical, etc.), Reefer Madness! aims considerably higher — or should that be lower? — with a Rage Against Dad that flirts with patricide.
In one emblematic scene, Jimmy, driving deranged under the demon weed's influence, mortally strikes an unknown Old Man, knocking the victim flat on his back. The play shows its hand in the ensuing ditty, “Dead Old Man” — Jimmy's mocking homage (while standing over the corpse) to the man's unread history: Whom did those liver-spotted arms once hold? Every wrinkle holds a tale. These are the kinds of sentiments so relished, and ridiculed, by the mostly youthful audience. The producers even call themselves Dead Old Man productions. It's a joke, you see, a timeless blanket assault not upon authority, but upon age. And nobody seems to have noticed the difference.
BEIJING SPRING — REACTING AGAINST A FAR more rigid and dangerous patriarchy — is certainly more entitled to its ageist generalities, but has no desire to exploit them. In fact, the play's greatest folly may well be the lengths it takes to avoid offending anyone: The student protesters keep reiterating that they're not trying to tear China down but strengthen her. Frankly, I've sat through high school graduations with more dramatic conflict than this show.
The story that unfolds behind the songs concerns a small group of students, and the risk they take in assembling, sleeping and hunger-striking on the famed Beijing square during a visit to the Chinese capital by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and much of the Western media.
The plot homes in on a sweet young scholar and activist (Michael K. Lee), his skeptical girlfriend (Ai Goeku) and his supportive father (Paul Wong), who remarks repeatedly with the wisdom of the ages how “China is making history again.” In the other camp are Deng Xiao Peng (Alvin Ing) and his cronies in the Great Hall of the People, “sipping tea and renewing old ties” (a scene and lyric reprised, for some inexplicable reason, in Act 2). These senior autocrats are portrayed as well-meaning old fogies, a little out of touch, living in Mao's shadow and struck with pangs of jealousy when the students haul their statue of Lady Liberty into Tian An Men Square. (“It could have been me,” Peng laments.)
Co-directors Deborah Nishimura and Tim Dang work with Lisa Hashimoto's banner-decorated set and Guido Girardi's lights to create some visually stunning stage pictures that go largely unmatched by Joel Iwataki's music (a blend of Oriental motifs in minor key signatures, punctuated by electric-guitar riffs and other Andrew Lloyd Webberish pop stylings) and Dang's lackluster lyrics. Mostly, the characters stand around in carefully composed clusters, beautifully singing phrases such as “They think you're silly/pretending to be equal in an autocracy” and other equally snappy refrains.
The musical poses the question of what makes 100,000 picketers take to the streets at any given crossroads of history. If the spark were poverty, Nepal would have burned to the ground decades ago. If it were just the lack of opportunity, there would certainly have been rioting in Moscow by now. This is the sort of pivotal question that Beijing Spring raises, then by and large ignores. (The starry-eyed cast keep crooning about “democracy” and “freedom” and other such shopworn words of inspiration.)
True, characters complain about the official restriction of one child per family, or that, after a man was killed in a factory, his family wasn't informed of his death for 17 days. But neither these injustices, nor censorship, nor anything else raised in the play's tableaux accounts for why a slender young man would stand alone in the attempt to stop a tank in its tracks. (Between that man and that machine, now frozen in our collective photographic memory, lies the generation gap of the century.) This is a spiritual gesture, explained and diminished in the musical by political platitudes and romantic bluster.
So the media leave, the authorities crack down, and the students' lofty ideals are left in shards. But “China is awakening,” the ensemble intones at play's end. Good for China. Now what about the audience?
BEIJING SPRING | By JOEL IWATAKI and TIM DANG | EAST WEST PLAYERS at the DAVID HENRY HWANG THEATER/UNION CENTER FOR THE ARTS, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., downtown | Through June 6
REEFER MADNESS! | By KEVIN MURPHY and DAN STUDNEY | At the HUDSON BACKSTAGE THEATER, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through June 5