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Off-Off Broadway Theater Review: Baba Israel's 'Cannabis: A Viper Vaudeville!'

Grace Galu and Baba Israel (in top hat) with "Cannabis: A Viper Vaudeville!" cast members

Baba Israel and Grace Galu have been workshopping Cannabis: A Viper Vaudeville! for the last five years. I've seen performances of it three times. The final version, co-directed by Israel and Talvin Wilkes, is currently runining at La MaMa in New York through the end of July.

Israel, the show's host, goes by the name Magical Mystical MC. Jonathan Zaragoza (Trickster Hipster) opens the marijuana musical with a version of Rick James' "Mary Jane." Backed by a band (Soul Inscribed), Israel, wearing a top hat, joins Zaragoza on the sing-a-long, the first of many opportunities for the audience to participate.

Israel quickly explains who the show is for: "Anyone who has had a felony on their back, feared losing their children or were busted on the corner." He adds his mother Pamela Mayo, who suffers from dementia, and his father Steve Ben Israel, both of whom performed in The Living Theater. 

"It's also for all the cannabis entrepreneurs - may you not be white or male."

With that commentary, it's clear where the show is going. It will be a polemical ride through cannabis history. (Israel was inspired to write it after reading Martin A. Lee's book, Smoke Signals.)

Sativa Diva Galu, attired in a fabulous green dress, is introduced next. She performs the "Sativa Diva Suite" surrounded by five writhing dancers. Galu can clearly belt out a tune. Patti Austin and Chaka Khan come to mind.

Grace Galu as Sativa Diva sings in "Cannabis: A Viper Vaudeville!" at La Mama. (Photo by Maria Baranova)

The history lesson begins with a series of songs extolling the Mexican Revolution (from 1911-1917), durung which Pancho Villa led his troops with the help of marijuana. A jazzy version of "La Cucaracha" features a scat by Gulu and a sax solo by Sean Nowell.

This segues to the jazz era where smokers were called vipers and weed was known as reefer, gage and tea. A song about Louis Armstrong, "The Prodical Son," finds Galu impersonating Satchmo's growling vocals to hilarious effect.

The Reefer Madness era began with a big target on jazz musicians' backs, like CelebStoner Legend Louis Armstrong who was busted in California in 1931, eight years before Congress banned marijuana.

The stage is now set for Galu's first-act centerpiece, "When I Go Low, I Get High," a take-off on Michelle Obama's political mantra.

Israel rushes ahead to the '50s, referencing Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation on his "Typerwriter Magic" rap and then to the '60s and the civil rights movement. The first act ends with a medley of Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" and The Beatles's "With a Little Help from My Friends," during which the troupe goes into the crowd and gets them dancing.

During the intermission, attendees are encouraged to step outside and puff. (CelebStoner photo)

The second act is considerably shorter than the first. Following a rendition of Bob Marley's "Kaya" by Galu (now outfitted in jeans and boots with a green top), Israel's mom dances on the screen as he beatboxes his touching "Go Mom Go" poem while sitting at the edge of the stage.

Israel shifts to the '70s and San Francisco where Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Rathbun's efforts to legalize medical use are the focus of "Who Are the Heroes" and "Sanctuary." "Who are the heroes and who take the chances," the singers, including dancer Courtney Cook, repeat. "Give us what we need," Israel pleads. "This is our sanctuary." It's another highlight section of the show.

From "PTSD" to "No More War," the last two songs, the show reaches the present with legalizattion spreading from state to state. While it's time to celebrate, "too many brothers [are] paying dues," Galu laments. 

Cannabis: A Viper Vaudeville! - commissioned, developed and produced by HERE - concludes somewhat abruptly. Israel rerturns to the stage and introduces an activist Zulaya who runs a female-owned and LGBTQ-run delivery service and speaks for five minutes. (Different activists appear at each performance.) Israel opens the mic but the only responses are gushing reviews. It's a flat ending to an otherwise joyous and meaningful musical.

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Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of CelebStoner.com, former editor of High Times and Freedom Leaf and co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness.