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Johnny Appleweed | New Line Theatre

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Apparently, Jesus and Buddha got high back in the day and discussed religion.

 

theater_appleweed

Mark Dodger (played by Aaron Allen) learns to smoke pot from Johnny Appleweed (John Sparger). Photo by Michael C. Daft.

 

"Hi, stoners!" was the opening greeting from Johnny Appleweed, a prophetic pothead who has a lot to say about a lot of different things. Part of the St. Louis Political Theatre Festival, Johnny Appleweed takes a look at the world through the eyes of a stoner—and tackles issues such as religion, gay marriage, politics, popular culture, and of course, legalization of marijuana.

Before the show started, the ushers told us not to smoke—cigarettes or otherwise—inside the theater. But there was a huge temptation, as the New Line Theatre was selling $2 bags of weed (disguised as marijuana-leaf Mardi Gras-style beads) right next to the entrance.

The ArtLoft Theatre has a wonderful, worn-in feel, with plenty of beat-up couches in the lobby, coed bathrooms, and a half-assed bar with a small array of alcoholic beverages. Inside the actual theater, there is a decent-sized stage with about 30 rows of connected chairs. After taking a seat, I was promptly greeted by a man who said he needed my help. I was supposed to say, "Hi, Johnny!" as the effervescent Appleweed (played brilliantly by John Sparger) jumped onto the stage. Many characters from the musical milled around beforehand, chatting with the audience and coaching them on interacting with Appleweed.

It's hard to believe that Johnny Appleweed is a musical—as the opening scene begins and the quartet fires up their respective instruments, four players are onstage, singing "The Ballad of Johnny Appleweed." Thankfully, it doesn't resemble any of your typical Broadway fare. Bravo, Director Scott Miller, bravo!

As each quirky character is introduced to the audience, I recognize the smell of marijuana wafting throughout the theater. Were they actually smoking pot? Hmm...

But that's somewhat beside the point. After meeting Appleweed, we are introduced to Mark Dodger (played by Aaron Allen), a tight-assed, stressed-out politician (a Republican, nonetheless) who becomes seduced by Appleweed and his sweet buds. Next, we meet Suzanne Moon (Ember Hyde), a disgruntled lesbian who works as an interpretive dancer and is fresh out of a long-term relationship. After boldly opposing Appleweed's ganja, she finally gives in and her stress melts away.

The trio of potheads then formulate a genius plan: They decide to travel to Washington, D.C., to have a chat with President Birch (played to perfection by Brian Claussen, who wonderfully evokes President Bush), and discuss with him the legalization of marijuana.

On the way to the White House, the gang comes across Jesus Christ (Matthew Korinko, who nailed the part) and his "friend" Fannie Mae Butcher (Kimi Short). Apparently, Jesus and Buddha got high back in the day and discussed religion. The Jesus in this musical was an amazing one, a Jesus to whom no one could be opposed. His teachings were filled with whimsical anecdotes and ideas that were neutral enough to be appreciated by all.

Without ruining the end, I'll just say that it's magical. In more ways than one. But the idea that was handed to me in the most obvious way during this musical was about popular culture. Too many people regard potheads as complete idiots, but this depiction of them was brilliantly intelligent. I really liked everything that they had to say. Maybe we should start listening to those potheads.

 

Johnny Appleweed runs through Nov. 4, 2006, at the ArtLoft Theatre, 1529 Washington Ave., in downtown St. Louis; shows are Thurs., Fri., and Sat. at 8 p.m. Tickets—$18 adults, $15 for students/seniors ($15/$10 on Thurs.)—available through all Metrotix outlets or by calling 314-534-1111.

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