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.

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