Friday, April 23, 2010

MTG's Evil Dead - a Pre-Review

This week and part of next I am running spotlight for MTG's production of Evil Dead: the Musical. Yes, this is a musical based on the Evil Dead series of films by Sam Rami, which starred that hero of modern camp, Bruce Campbell. Yes, this is a musical based on one of the most insane, gorefest horror movies of all time. This is probably the campiest, most profanity-filled splatterfest ever performed to a musical score.

First, the movies. Evil Dead is often considered one of the classic horror zombie movie franchises (though I maintain that deadites are not technically zombies, being dead bodies possessed by demons, not the living dead). The first was a straight horror film about five dumb college students vacationing in a cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere. The kids find a tape recorder with tapes of some history professor reading passages from some spooky ancient Mesopotamian book he was translating (an obvious reference to Lovecraft's Necronomicon--in Evil Dead the book was called something else but in the later movies the name was changed to that of its inspiration). Said tape recording of ancient text summons evil demons which proceed to posses everything in sight. The movie is graphically violent with extreme to the point of absurdity splatter and gore, including scenes of dismemberment, tree-rape (seriously) and a spooky steady cam that likes to chase people. It ends with everyone but Ash (Campbell) first possessed then killed, sometimes several times, and apparently closes with Ash being possessed by the demonic force as well.

Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn, is a sort of sequel, sort of remake. The first 10 minutes recaps Evil Dead, except now with only Ash and his girlfriend Linda, striking the other three students. But then it merges with the original at the point Ash is hit by the evil steady cam, and goes from there. Ash isn't killed, but fails to escape before nightfall, which brings a new pack of dopey victims to be possessed and/or gruesomely killed. Evil Dead II is a comedy/horror hybrid, where the gore of the first is played to the extreme for grim humor, and Ash begins to evolve into more of an action hero trope. This movie is in many ways exactly the same as the first with a new cast, but features ridiculousness like Ash's disembodied hand becoming a major antagonist, slapstick action, and an ending that gets Ash and his chainsaw arm sucked into the past.

Army of Darkness, aka Evil Dead 3, is the best known film in the franchise and is a high comedy-action hybrid, where Ash spouts his most quotable ass-kicking lines. "This is my BOOMSTICK!" "Give me some sugar, baby," "Well, I maybe didn't say every little syllable, but basically, yeah I said the words," and other oft-hipster/nerd quoted lines originate, and is a lot more about kicking demon ass than either gore or horror.

And so, naturally, this horror then horror-comedy then comedy-action movie franchise was converted into an off-Broadway musical that workshopped in 2004 and opened in NYC in 2006. It's...definitely a thing that happened. Evil Dead: the Musical is most famous for being the only musical ever to feature a splatter-zone. Of interest, MTG has reproduced that key feature, and quite successfully, which I'll get back to later. The musical weaves together Evil Dead and its pseudo-remake-sequel Evil Dead 2, inserting the best lines and some of Ash's characterization from Army of Darkness and the comedy elements of the second film back into the story of the first. There is also a sly nod to the remake/reboot features of Evil Dead 2, as Act II begins with a do-over of the last scene of Act I, except all the bodies except for Linda's have vanished without explanation. The story both mocks and plays along with the dumb-college-student horror movie tropes, and when things start to go crazy, the musical really goes off the deep end. Once the axes and chainsaws come out, the stage (and audience) is drenched with gallons of fake blood. The show features numbers such as "What the Fuck was That," "Ode to an Accidental Stabbing," and "Necronomicon," this show's sort-of homage to "Time Warp."

The problem is, well...the sci-fi/horror rock musical has been done before, and much better. The comedy elements work better in Bat Boy, and the music of both Bat Boy and the old classic Rocky Horror blow away the frankly mediocre songs in Evil Dead. The show's a lot of fun, but doesn't have a lot of staying power or memorable songs. Aside from the novelty factor of seeing a cult classic converted to stage show and a musical accompanied by splashes of gore, there's not really a whole lot to this show.

That said, MTG's production is very well done and a ton of fun, such that I am going to go see it tonight in my night off from spot op. The technical design of the show is superb--the set (Karen Hart) looks great (though I hear the floor painting was a lucky inheritance from Dramashop), the lighting design (Alex French) is really effective, with fantastic effects during the creepy/crazy and especially gorefest moments in the show. I was also very impressed with the choreography (Christopher Brathwaite) which was energetic, precise and well supported the music, and was executed with enthusiasm by the cast.

The cast is excellent as well, taking the camp elements for everything they're worth and then some, which is the only way this show can work. The singing is all high quality and spot on. The most impressive musical performance comes from Jake (Brad Smith) who belts out his numbers like a hillbilly meatloaf, and yes, his numbers are every bit as high as they sound. Linda (Karen Hart) puts on a beautiful musical performance, or as much as is possible with the absurd numbers she has. My favorite acting performance came from Cheryl (Priscilla Army) who went above and beyond the call of duty in her portrayal of the (spoiler alert) cellar-bound head demon who torments Ash throughout the show.

And then, there's the blood. MIT, unsurprisingly, has more than a few people heavily involved in theater tech, and the implementation of the gore is pretty well done. Blood gushes out of every wound, the floor, the walls...there's even an exceptionally well choreographed number where Ash dances with/wastes the deadites, and blood blasts everywhere. The actors have to get special props for acting and dancing on a floor covered with as much water as a boat deck during a thunderstorm. There is a splatter zone of three rows where the audience can expect to be struck-to-drenched with fake blood. Depending on your opinion of how fun that would be, you will be relieved or disappointed to know that the seats are available by request only and are mostly reserved out. If you are going to sit in a splatter seat, I recommend wearing a raincoat. Seriously. If you're not, you should be safe...but note, this is live theater, and unexpected accidents may happen. The gore is all washable, but I'd advise not wearing anything that can't be machine washed, just to be safe.

In summary, I'm not sure that Evil Dead: the Musical was a thing that should have happened, and I can't recommend the original cast album much at all. But as a theatrical experience, MTG's production is fairly to moderately awesome, and if you have the chance (and don't mind a little flying gore), it should be seen. This is a show that only really works in live performance, and MTG quite successfully takes it all the way.

Correction: I originally mis-identified Priscilla's character as Shelly; she's Cheryl.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Week of High Class Carousing (Part II)

All pictures in this post are credit: Sarah Lohman.

Barsmarts Party Continued: the Drinks.
Here are a few of the more interesting drinks I made at the party, and some of the reviews I got from the guests.
  • Blood and Sand. Equal parts OJ, Chivas Regal Scotch, sweet vermouth, and Cherry Heering, shaken over ice and strained into a martini glass. Cherry Heering is a heavily sweetened cherry flavored brandy, that I certainly would never drink on its own, but might be usable as a dessert drink/digestiff paired with the right meal. While the ingredients sound somewhat intimidating, the drink was actually quite pleasant, and most people enjoyed it. I found it has something of a heavy syrupy aftertaste that wasn't so great, but mileage varied.
  • Caipirinha. A traditional Brazilian drink that's fun to make and strong as hell. Half a lime muddled into an ounce of simple syrup, topped with two ounces of cachaca. Cachaca is similar to rum, but apparently you can't say that to a Brazilian. It is fermented sugar cane juice, generally unaged, and has a much funkier aroma than the sort of Puerto Rican rums we're used to. The Caipirinha is the traditional way to drink cachaca, the drink is assembled and then either shaken or stirred over ice.
  • The Cosmopolitan. The drink that made Dale Degroff and the Rainbow Room famous (though he modestly claims not to be the inventor of the drink, only its standardizer). Citrus vodka, cranberry juice, lime juice, cointreau, shaken and strained into a cocktail glass. The drink itself is pretty well known these days, and is most remarkable for the traditional flourish: a flamed orange peel. Fresh citrus peel, cut from the fruit right before you use it, has a ton of oil in it. Many drinks are finished with a spray of this oil from the cut "twist." The cosmo has you flame this oil by squeezing it through a lit match, causing a flash of light and all the girls around the bar to go "ooh, what was that?" Which, as far as I can tell, is the purpose of the flamed twist, because I don't think incinerated citrus oil can be adding that much to the drink itself.
  • Manhattan. The drink as described in my book isn't that interesting, but is a delicious classic: 2:1 bourbon or rye:sweet vermouth plus a dash of bitters, shaken and strained into a cocktail glass with a cherry. The variant I make based on information from Dave Wondrich's book Imbibe is a huge hit--here a barspoonful of Maraschino liqueur and a few dashes of absinthe are added, and the cherry is omitted. Makes a wonderfully spicy and complex drink.
  • Pisco Sour. Pisco is a distilled liquor from Peru, made from grapes but unaged. The traditional drink for it is the sour, which is 2:1:1 pisco to simple syrup to lime juice, a few dashes of bitters, and one egg white. You have to shake the bejeesus out of these. The first one I made wasn't completely homogenized, but the creaminess of the second was highly regarded.

19th Century Pub Crawl. This was the third in the series organized by my sister and the 19th century historical society. The first was in NYC, the second in Cleveland, and now Boston. Victorian dress was encouraged but not required, and a number of people did dress up, myself included. I am in fact now clean shaven for the first time in two years, as I decided that the mutton chops I was sporting on Saturday were not ideal for the job interview I have on Wednesday. Pictures from the event can be found here: And now, the bars.
  • Eastern Standard. Our first stop was Eastern Standard who worked with my sister to give us a great start to the night. We had our own reserved area, a lovely menu, and complimentary appetizers. The drinks were 19th century classics, and included their version of the classic Cocktail (rye, sugar, bitters, stirred and served over ice); the Martinez (Old Tom Gin and dry vermouth in a 1:1 proportion, plus maraschino liqueur and orange bitters); the Ward Eight, a drink invented here in Boston; the Japanese cocktail, a concoction of brandy and lime juice invented by "the Professor" Jerry Thomas to commemorate the arrival of the first Japanese ambassador to America, and the Frisco, Rye and benedictine with lemon. I had a Japanese cocktail and a Martinez and enjoyed both, but actually found the Martinez a bit sweet for my tastes.
  • Red Hat. The Red Had has been open for more than 100 years, and is right next to government Center. The drinks list is a lot more...we'll say, "pitchers of mudslides" than the Eastern Standard, but the charm is in the location. The bar is restored original, the walls have these really cool murals of Boston circa 1900, and it all and all was a nice place to drink. Below is me pictured with the other sporters of 19th century facial hair indicating the "Gentlemen's" room at Red Hat.
  • Union Oyster House. The oldest continually operating bar and restaurant in America. When we showed up, the bartender looked terrified and ran to get the bar manager. He at first told us he didn't know about any bar crawl event and interrogated me on our sobriety level. Once he realized we were just a bunch of tipsy nerds, he welcomed us in and let us proceed. Again, the drinks were not the highlight and no one felt like eating oysters, but its another great bar right downtown, and was actually pretty uncrowded. When I asked the bartender if he had Jim Beam Rye for a Manhattan, he said "I got Jim Beam whatever, I dunno, whatever kind we have." So, when Jim Beam Rye is an exotic drink component, you know their are no mixologists on duty. Still, a nice stop on the crawl.
  • Drink. We skipped the fourth official stop on the list, the Bell in Hand Tavern, as there was a line full of preppy clubgoers around the block, so we headed right over to Drink, which is flat out one of the best bars in Boston. Drink only vaguely knew to expect us, and is a very busy club. The doorman was super nice, though warning us it might take 45 minutes to get in, he and the barmaster actually got all 12 of us remaining into the bar in 15 minutes, got drinks in all our hands, and even finished the night by making us the most elaborate set of shots I have ever seen produced, requiring three bartenders and a multi page document, raw eggs, whipped cream, and four part instructions for consuming them ending in bursting the egg yolk in your mouth. I also had another Martinez, here made with Boll's genever, a much maltier style of gin than the old tom, and it tasted like a fabulous boozy cookie.
All in all an amazing weekend, and my hangover is totally almost gone.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Week of High Class Carousing

MIT Alumni Association Scotch Tasting. I started things out last Tuesday by taking Laura’s ticket to this scotch tasting event sponsored by the MIT alumni association. It was a pretty nice little talk, with a tasting flight of six scotches associated. There was a second class on Friday, which was a problem because I had my cocktail party that day. I had been tricked into buying the tickets because somehow we all thought the classes were Tuesday Thursday…but oh well. The informational content of the lecture was interesting, but mostly stuff I knew already. The talk on the night I went was bout the different regions scotch is distilled and a lot on how to do the tasting itself. The lecture I missed was to focus on the actual process of producing scotch whisky. The night I went, the tasting flight included Johnny Walker Swing, which is terrible and overpriced bad blended scotch in a stupid bottle, Glenkinchie, a lowlands malt, Two Dalmores (highlands) and two Laphroaigs (Islay).

Barsmarts Practical Exam Cocktail Party. Last month I took an online bartending class, and it was pretty fantastic. Barsmarts is a program put together by Dale Degroff, the original bartender of the Rainbow Room in New York who is one of the main drivers of the modern cocktail renaissance, Dave Wondrich, a historian who makes his career studying the history of drinking, plus a number of other storied mixologists. The live program costs a freaking fortune and is designed for training bartenders working the classiest of joints. The online version was only forty-five dollars and I got a set of bartending tools in the mail too. The course book was extremely well done, covered everything from the history of distilling to a primer on all the major liquors to practical bartending. It also included the recipes for 25 classic cocktails “every bartender should know.”

The goal of the party was for me to mix any dink in my coursework from memory in a live bartending type situation. It went pretty darn well—I didn’t make any mistakes (until 2am and I forgot to add bitters to a Manhattan, but I was fairly well in the bag by that point so I move it doesn’t count). I got a little overwhelmed about 10, and was very kindly relieved by my sister’s boyfriend Kyle around 11 so I could actually talk to people.

More to come, including my favorite drinks from the party and the rundown on the 19th century pub crawl event from Saturday.