Evil Dead: The Musical | Inhuman Swill | William Shunn


Evil Dead: The Musical

This theater review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, October 10, 2006.

It’s an old story, as familiar as the fingers on your hand. Five college students break into an abandoned cabin deep in the woods, looking for cheap fun and easy romance. Instead they awaken an ancient, slumbering evil, and one by one they die in horrible ways. And return to life as zombies. And occasionally burst into song.

Okay, maybe not entirely familiar.

Based on Sam Raimi’s cult favorite horror films, Evil Dead: The Musical follows Ash (Ryan Ward), a hapless S-Mart stockboy who leads a group of friends to a remote Tennessee cabin for spring break. The vacation turns sinister almost immediately with the discovery of an eerie old leather-bound book written in a foreign tongue. A cassette recording left by the professor who owns the cabin identifies this as the Necronomicon, an ancient compendium of spells for working all manner of evil, bound in human skin and inked in blood. The professor’s recorded voice begins sounding out the syllables of an incantation to summon Candarian demons, and before Ash’s sister Cheryl (Jenna Coker) can shut off the cassette player, all hell breaks loose.

The newly freed demons possess Cheryl first, who brutally attacks the others with an ax raised in menace and a voice raised in song. Ash and his friends, reluctant to kill her despite her savagery and dancing skills, manage to chain her up in the basement. But the demons aren’t finished making musical mischief. One after another they infest the young friends, who must kill each other or be killed themselves. By the end of the bloodbath, only Ash remains standing, having butchered his girlfriend Linda (Jennifer Byrne) with a chainsaw, squared off against a wisecracking moosehead, done battle with his own severed hand, and protested in song that he isn’t a killer, all to the accompaniment of the greatest evil of all—Cheryl’s horrendous puns.

That’s when the professor’s daughter Annie (Renée Klapmeyer) arrives on the blood-slicked scene with an entourage of her own, plus a collection of missing pages from the Necronomicon—spells the evil deadites will stop at nothing to destroy. And things really get icky from there.

Dead men tell no tales, but zombies get the best songs

True Evil Dead-heads will want to reserve seats early in one of the first two rows—the so-called “Splatter Zone.” Patrons sitting here are guaranteed to see red, and to wear it home too.

What Evil Dead fans will want to know is whether or not this production does justice to the madcap mayhem of the movies. The answer is a thunderous yes. The script deftly stitches together the plots of the first two films, throwing in several references to Army of Darkness for good measure. In fact, whatever possessed the creators of the musical to tackle this project, you’ve got to hand it to them. (Get it? Hand?) They are clearly great fans of the source material, having stuffed their musical to the gills with enough in-jokes, memorable movie lines, and blood and gore to satisfy the hardest of the hardcore. There are even sly references to other Sam Raimi films; aficionados well-versed enough in his oeuvre to know the phrase “fake Shemp” will be delighted to find that role listed in the credits.

All of which begs the question of how well Evil Dead: The Musical will play to audience members unfamiliar with the movies. They may feel a bit lost at times—the script sometimes skimps on story for the sake of rushing to the next set piece—but the energy of the cast, the music, and the staging should carry them over the rough spots. The acting is uniformly hammy and altogether appropriate to the material. Ryan Ward in particular makes a great impression, unearthing his inner Bruce Campbell to enliven the proceedings with his deadpan heroics. Jenna Coker as Cheryl and Renée Klapmeyer as both Shelly and Annie tear into their roles with relish as well.

The many musical numbers are great fun too, with choreography by multiple Tony Award-winning hoofer Hinton Battle that blends well with the chaotic action. Songs like “Look Who’s Evil Now,” “All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons,” and one approximately but not exactly titled “What the Heck Was That?” are filled with wit and sung with gusto, even if the occasional line scores its joke while falling a syllable or two short of dead reckoning. But standing head and shoulder blades above the rest is the showstopping number “Do the Necronomicon,” which packs a full Broadway zombie dance revue into five delirious and gut-busting minutes, cleverly paying homage to Rocky Horror along the way.

The true star of this production, though, is the stagecraft deployed to turn an ordinary-looking cabin in the woods into a demented theater of the grotesque. To say the production designers have used every trick in the book to bring Sam Raimi’s gory vision to life is to understate the case. They’ve written a few new chapters, and written them in blood. Once the mayhem gets going, it barely lets up, with eviscerations, dismemberments, beheadings, and shotgun blasts sending gouts of stage blood erupting in every direction. The famous scene where Ash takes a chainsaw to his own hand is staged with ghoulish glee, as is the hand’s demonic cavorting once it’s separated from its owner. Practically every element of the set comes alive at some point in the show, most of them spewing blood, and by the time the final curtain falls gallons of the stuff have been spilled. That’s where the heart of this show lies—when it’s not flying through the air to land with a bloody plop in the middle of the stage, that is.

Despite some missteps, occasional technical glitches, and an anticlimactic coda that goes on too long, Evil Dead: The Musical is a real scream. Or to put it in terms horror fans and theater buffs alike will understand, this show kills.  

Evil Dead: The Musical
Starring Ryan Ward, Renée Klapmeyer, Jenna Coker, Jennifer Byrne, Brandon Wardell, Tom Walker and Darryl Winslow
Book and lyrics by George Reinblatt
Music by Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris and George Reinblatt
Directed by Christopher Bond and Hinton Battle
Choreography by Hinton Battle
Scenic design by David Gallo
Special effects and makeup design by Louis Zakarian
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, New York, NY
In previews through October 31, opens November 1

Featured Book

An Alternate History of the 21st Century: Stories by William Shunn
Proper Manuscript Format by William Shunn