Off Broadway Reviews
Foes of the fashion faux pas already know not to wear white after Labor Day. But if you're sitting in the first few rows of the New World Stages theater were Evil Dead: The Musical just opened, don't wear white at all.
Though plastic ponchos are provided and a pre-show announcement promises any stains incurred will wash out of clothing, better safe than sorry: There's as much blood in the last half hour of this giddily gruesome spectacle than in any recent show except The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
In no other ways can, or should, these shows be compared; if Inishmore was an Olympic-sized swimming pool, Evil Dead is at best a Slip 'N Slide. But this adaptation of Sam Raimi's cult film series doesn't suffer from lack of depth. Rather, it thrives on it, making that blood spurting all over the stage and audience merely the crowning moment in an evening celebrating the best of the worst that low-budget horror flicks - and fringe musicals - can offer.
Even so, the going is seldom easy: George Reinblatt's book, the sole consistent element in a show with two lyricists and five composers (Reinblatt is also credited as each), begins like an homage to the Scary Movie film franchise, more about making fun than having fun. "What can possibly go wrong with five college students breaking into an abandoned, secluded cabin in the woods, where no one knows where we are?" says one character, inspiring the knowing, get-on-with-it-already laughter the musical Urinetown made mainstream five years ago.
But once those five students - played with vapid relish by Jennifer Byrne, Jenna Coker, Renée Klapmeyer, Ryan Ward, and Brandon Wardell - arrive at that cabin for spring break and are immediately set upon by evil voices, eviler trees, and the world's evilest book (the infamous Necronomicon), the show comes alive as a tribute rather than outright parody. Thankfully, the hilarity and body count accumulate in roughly equal measure.
While jokes aplenty tweak the theatre and horror movies, it's the chainsaw-powered gratuitous violence and declarative quotes from the films that strive to unite lovers of the original film with their clarion calls of solidarity. Based on the performance I attended just before Halloween, they worked amazingly well; "This is my boomstick!", like other neo-classic lines delivered straight out the house, made the audience go wild.
If you don't need to adore (for whatever reasons) the original movies to like the musical, you're unlikely to love it if you don't. Reinblatt and his army of collaborators don't have a bottomless wellspring of tricks, so the show's campy comic sensibility becomes a precarious balancing act. For every two jokes in the book that work, there's at least one that doesn't; that ratio is reversed in the score, a tiresome collection of songs that don't stop until every halfway-humorous idea is driven at top speed into the ground.
The closest thing to a working number is "Do the Necronomicon," a reimagined "Time Warp" for the undead set. (The timeless Rocky Horror Show dance is even referenced in the lyric.) Director-choreographer Hinton Battle and his cast let loose with the overzealous fun here like nowhere else in the show, giving into anarchic silliness with a frenetic energy that will lock your mouth in a grin and set your toes tapping in spite of themselves. (As a major plot point involves a severed human hand, perhaps this isn't that surprising.)
Ward, who starred in the show's original Toronto production, is a bit on the stiff side, but has just the unassumingly heroic manner the central role of Ash calls for. Coker is a riot as his introverted sister, munching happily on lines and scenery that make Cheryl the most animated character onstage. Wardell and Klapmeyer get a lot of mileage out of the sex-starved Scott and his vacant girlfriend Shelly, though Byrne doesn't push desperate anxiety to dizzy enough extremes as Ash's ill-fated girlfriend.
In smaller, more functionary roles, Tom Walker and Darryl Winslow voraciously overplay their allotted moments in the spotlight, and seldom match the impact of their (relatively) restrained castmates. Mind you, this doesn't stop initiated audience members from gleefully inhaling their bits just the same, and they - more than anything else - make this show into the comedy steamroller it is at its best. So you have two options: Get out of the way, or get run over. If you can stand the blood and the corn, I'd like to recommend the latter.
Evil Dead: The Musical