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Regional Reviews by Gavin Logan

Evil Dead the Musical
Vertigo Theatre Centre in Calgary

What should one expect when attending a musicalized adaptation of a smash-hit, cult horror movie franchise? This is the question I asked myself as I stood in the lobby of The Playhouse at Vertigo Theatre Centre. Being familiar with the original Evil Dead trilogy (Evil Dead, Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn, and Army of Darkness) had prepared me at least somewhat—I looked forward to an over-the-top demon slaying, blood gushing, bone-crushing, gut-wrenching good time. But how, I pondered, would this theatre company ever be able to deliver such a feast for the eyes?

I am happy to report that the Ground Zero Theatre/ Hit and Myth Productions co-production of Evil Dead the Musical is a perfect offering (for those with no aversion to gore). This is a show with its heart on its sleeve—actually, most of its entrails are on its sleeve as well, and on the sleeves of the audience in the "Splatter Zone," too. The score is an unmitigated melange of zany power ballads, up-tempo zombie dance sequences, hard rock duets of terror and fear, country anthems, and even a soft-shoe ditty for one sadly undemonstrative zombie (it's not his fault—it's just a bit part, after all).

The music for the show is composed by a team consisting of Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris and George Reinblatt; book and lyrics are by Reinblatt, who has done an excellent job of condensing Sam Raimi's much beloved goofball trilogy into a concise, exciting, fast-paced evening. The laughs (there are many) are generated naturally; it is not necessary to know the original movies before attending the show, but on the night I attended, the Dead-heads were out in full force. Much like The Rocky Horror Picture Show viewings at late night movie theatres, the fans in attendance Friday night were ready to support the cast by shouting out well-known one-liners, and laughing uproariously at every anticipated gag. Add to this the much lauded Splatter Zone (three rows in the front wherein the patrons are rewarded for their generous support by being drenched in buckets of fake gore), and you have an excellently produced evening of campy musical theatre.

The story itself is as familiar as Jason Voorhees's hockey mask: five college students break into a run-down cabin in the woods. They are Ash (played to perfection by Tyler Rive), an S-Mart housewares employee; his girlfriend Linda (Lynley Hall), an S-Mart cashier; best friend Scotty (Christian Goutsis) and his new girlfriend Shelly (the wonderful Rebecca Northan); and Ash's outcast younger sister Cheryl (Jamie Tognazzini). Once inside, they find artefacts left behind by the previous owner, including a mysterious book, a large skull-shaped dagger and a tape recorder. Naturally curious (how could dramatic irony exist without curiosity, anyways?), the gang plays the tape recorder only to learn that the previous tenant was an archaeologist who had found the Necronomicon ("Book of the Dead") and translated its ancient passages. Before you can say "Don't go out there," one of the group runs in fear through the forest, has a run in with a couple of randy bushes, and—voila!—let the possessions begin.

Meanwhile, somewhere across the world, the archaeologist's daughter, Annie (played to perfection by Rebecca Northan, in an outstanding double performance) has uncovered the last remaining pages of the Necronomicon and is excitedly returning home to her father with her unwillingly silent fiancé Ed (Guilly Urra) in tow. Along the way, Annie and Ed encounter a hilariously washed out bridge and enlist the help of good ol' reliable redneck Jake (the lovably backwoods Bruce Horak), who helps them find the cabin.

The cast of this production is excellent. Tasked with re-creating what is arguably one of the most well-loved action heroes of the comical B-horror film genre, Tyler Rive does an admirable job as Ash, the dim-witted and hapless hero with a chainsaw hand. Rive is at his best when truly embracing the blood-and-guts mayhem that ensues in act two. Rive's singing voice is perhaps his weakest attribute, and several songs seemed just on the threshold of his vocal range; in a few places, he seemed strained. Acting-wise, however, his performance is top-notch. When he finally dons the chainsaw hand, Rive appears to be channelling Bruce Campbell himself.

The show's most impressive number is the hysterical "What the Fuck Was That?," a duet for Ash and Scotty that occurs a moment after Scotty's girlfriend is blown away with a sawed off shotgun, and it suits Rive's and Goutsis's vocal ranges perfectly. The rock duet segues into a wonderful counterpoint.

Humour abounds in this show, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the role of Ed, who is not permitted to speak by his overbearing fiancé, Annie. Ed, unsurprisingly, becomes a demon shortly after arriving at the idyllic cabin and is given one of the funniest songs in the show, "Bit Part Demon," wherein Ed revels in his chance to finally have something to say. "Evil Ed" is a sad-sack little demon with a hysterical soft-shoe dance routine until of course, he meets the proper end for a bit-part character. The entire scene had me thinking of a demon-possessed Amos in Chicago (and that's a good thing!).

Another show-stopping highlight belongs to Northan, in the second (and better) of her two roles. As Annie, the tortured daughter of the archaeology professor who first unleashed the demons onto the earth, Northan sings a hilarious doo-wop inspired ballad of woe and misery, detailing the terrible fate that has befallen every man she has ever loved (including the recently possessed Ed). "All the Men in My Life Have Been Killed By Candarian Demons" had the audience in stitches, as Northan sang her litany of woe, backed up by Rive and Bruce Horak.

The director, Kevin McKendrick, makes good use of the exceptional set design (by David Gallo) and the pacing of the show never falters. There is always the danger when directing any show based on such a well-known property of wanting the actors to deliver carbon copy performances, but McKendrick seems to have allowed his actors to find their own take on the characters, without sacrificing any of the moments that made the original trilogy such a cult favourite. Several humourous moments abound, including ridiculous animals and small-sized set-pieces being carried on and off by some 'invisible' stage hands; also enjoyable are the singing and dancing moose and beaver, and the well-timed first blast of blood into the Splatter Zone.

The only flaw in the show is an overabundance of amplification. It might be a personal thing, but I find it somewhat irritating when actors are miked even during the spoken parts of the story. In this case, the miked dialogue served to drag me out of the moment whenever the songs ended. All in all, this is an entertaining evening out. Ground Zero Theatre/ Hit and Myth Productions have a bloody big hit on their hands!

Evil Dead the Musical runs May 26th - June 30th, 2009 at The Playhouse at Vertigo Theatre Centre, Calgary, AB, Canada. For tickets, visit the website at http://calgary.evildeadthemusical.com/.

Evil Dead the Musical. Music by Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris, and George Reinblatt. Book and Lyrics by George Reinblatt. Directed by Kevin McKendrick. Set Design by David Gallo. Cast: Christian Goutsis, Lynley Hall, Bruce Horak, Daniel Mallett, Rebecca Northan, Tyler Rive, Jamie Tognazzini, Guilly Urra.


-- Gavin Logan