"What can possibly go wrong with five college kids breaking into an abandoned cabin in the woods when nobody knows where we are?"
For those very cultured New York theatre-goers who felt last season's Martin McDonagh bloodbath The Lieutenant of Inishmore wasn't quite graphically violent enough to satisfy their very refined tastes, might I suggest an evening at the latest offering to grace the Off-Broadway stage, Evil Dead: The Musical. It's freakin' awesome.
This gleefully sadistic and unapologetically stupid tuner may not exactly be what Rodgers and Hammerstein had in mind when they began perfecting the craft of the musical play, but hey, Rodgers and Hammerstein never thought to give plastic ponchos to people sitting in the first two rows to protect them from sprays and splatters of blood gushing out of chainsawed body parts. Now that's something to sing about!
The plot…wait, there's a plot? Oh right, there's a plot. Well, as quoted above, five college kids go out for a free weekend in the woods by breaking into a seemingly abandoned cabin. (The show is based on a movie that I've never seen and its sequel that I've never heard of.) Our hero is the upright, noble superstore stock clerk, Ash (Ryan Ward). His girlfriend Linda (Jennifer Byrne) is a character best described as "the hero's girlfriend. "There's also his shy, brainy sister Cheryl (Jenna Coker) and horny buddy Scott (Brandon Wardell) who has brought his most recent bar pickup, the sexy and stupid Shelly (Renee Klapmeyer), who doesn't quite get along with Cheryl. ("She thinks she's so smart just because she can read.")
Once inside, and in the great tradition of blood and gore movies, just before they're about to have sex, the kids discover an ancient Book of the Dead, bound in human flesh and inked in human blood, accidentally unleashing a bunch of slumbering demons which start possessing them one by one. When Ash's hand shows signs of being possessed, he cuts it off with a chain saw. And that's when the fun begins.
Soon joining them are Annie (Klapmeyer again), whose family owns the cabin, her boyfriend Ed (Tom Walker) and good old reliable Jake (Darryl Winslow) who sings a song about himself called "Good Old Reliable Jake." Just about everyone starts turning into demons and Ash is faced with a kill or be killed situation. So he kills. And makes a mess of the place doing it.
The book and lyrics by George Reinblatt are heavy on self-referential camp. ("Do all these demons only speak in bad puns?") There's a smattering of inside jokes for fans of the movie and favorite quotes from the screenplay, but even if you're not in the know, hearing a theatre full of folks roaring their approval at lines like "This is my boom stick!" is all part of the experience. The music by Reinblatt, Frank Cipolla, Chrstopher Bond and Melissa Morris is ghoulish rock blended with showtune. Songs like "Look Who's Evil Now", "All The Men In My Life Keep Getting Killed By Candarian Demons" and "What The Fuck Was That?" weren't exactly written for plot and character development, but they're cheery and entertaining.
What makes Evil Dead: The Musical really soar is the outstanding co-direction of Christopher Bond and Hinton Battle (who also choreographed) and a production designed for terrifying fun. The show seems in constant crazed motion with lots of physical comedy and choreographed confrontations. David Gallo's set has many creepy and campy surprises and there's plenty of terrific work by Jason Lyons (lights), Cynthia Nordstrom (costumes), Peter Fitzgerald & Kevin Lacy (sound) Michael Laird (sound effects) and especially Louis Zakarian (special effects and makeup).
The cast appears to be having a blast belting out numbers, dancing up a storm and overacting to the right degree. Leading man Ryan Ward is especially funny as the stiff, but cool hero. He's a sorta rocker Jimmy Stewart. But once possessed, it's comic fireball Jenna Coker who threatens to steal the show. Trapped under the cellar door for most of the evening, she pops up regularly to spit out one-liners and menace those who dared to sit up front. When the demons dance "Do The Necronomicon" she wildly pounds the floor into submission.
Ryan Williams plays a character called "Fake Shemp." Wikipedia tells us that a Fake Shemp is a movie actor who fills in for another actor, usually filmed from behind or in some other manner where we don't see his/her face. The term originated when Shemp Howard of The Three Stooges passed away while several of their movies were in the middle of filming. Actor Joe Palma stood in for Shemp, filmed from behind, in order to wrap up those projects. Film director Sam Raimi used family and friends to act as Fake Shemps when filming The Evil Dead on a modest $350,000 budget. I really never noticed Mr. Williams on stage (which I suppose means he is an excellent Fake Shemp) except for two very obvious comical moments. And he takes a very enthusiastic curtain call.
Photos by Carol Rosegg Top: Ryan Ward
Center: Darryl Winslow, Jenna Coker, Brandon Wardell, Jennifer Byrne and Tom Walker
Bottom: Jenna Coker