By Eva Phillips
The 70s and 80s were a macabre-surrealist paradise when it came to horror films. Even the Sparknote versions of these films are preposterously devious: A town ravaged by an un-dead, fedora-clad pedophile stalking and murdering teens in their dreams; divorce and mental illness viciously allegorized through a tale of physiological-mutation therapy set against brutal murders seemingly enacted by children (that originated the body horror standards known as Cronenbergian); a child’s playtime turns hellish after a crass serial killer transplants his soul into a particularly ugly doll vis-à-vis a sloppy Satanic ritual (of course); monstrosities abound on a remote Arctic research facility as grotesque, alien-ish creatures inhabit the flesh of humans, and also serve as a communism metaphor (again, of course).
Of these madcap classics, the zenith of the sublimely horrific, grisly fun the era produced was perhaps Evil Dead (and its subsequent sequels). As blithe as they are gruesome, the films, created by gore-auteur Sam Raimi, of the Evil Dead trilogy–Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992)—encapsulate the ludicrously fantastical and extravagantly violent style that was the law of the land in horror cinema of that era. Evil Dead’s foundational premise is simple enough: a group of college kids—Ash, his sister Cheryl, his best friend Scott, and his girlfriend Shelly—venture to a desolate, isolated cabin in the Tennessee woods for a boozy, raucous vacation only to have things **shockingly** devolve. Heedless to the ominous, disembodied voices imploring Cheryl to “Join Us” (chalk it up to finnicky plumbing, right?) and some absolutely vile advances from the malevolent trees in the forest surrounding them, the group is tormented by an unseen malevolent force that gradually, and viciously, converts them to the leagues of the evil dead.
While it often feels and seems as though the ingenuity well runneth dry these days in terms of original story ideas, the modern age is a proverbial goldmine for avant-garde re-imaginings of cult classics. Capitalizing on the high-camp and sadistic humor of the films, George Reinblatt’s Evil Dead: The Musical weaves the plots and characters from Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness into one delightfully over-the-top musical extravaganza. Hailed as a new Rocky Horror by the New York Times and “Fantastic” by Rosie O’Donnell (the endorsement all artists crave), Reinblatt’s musical splits between the doomed Spring Break trip taken by Ash, Cheryl, Scott, Shelly and Ash’s coworker/girlfriend, Linda, and the frantic search for the “Necronomicon Ex-Mortis” (familiar to Evil Dead and H.P. Lovecraft acolytes as a mythic grimoire), the text etched in human blood that freed the demons preying upon Ash and his crew.
As a part of their incomparably fun After Hours Rocking West End Series, Pittsburgh Musical Theater has brought back their wildly popular adaptation of Evil Dead: The Musical. With most of the cast from last year’s production returning to play their original roles, the late-night show indeed feels like a delightfully rambunctious viewing of Rocky Horror. A giddy and rambunctious crowd, armed with ample libations and proudly sporting flannel and other such cabin-in-the-woods attire, cheered, cackled, sang along, and squealed with elated disgust as audience members in the front rows caught a stray blood-spurt from a severed appendage.
Aside from a few audio consistency glitches in the opening scenes (which were quickly rectified), Pittsburgh Musical Theatre’s back-by-demand production is expertly staged. Director Nick Mitchell does a stellar job of knowledgably designing the musical in such a way that fans of the films will revel in the character quirks, subtle (and not-so-subtle) intertextual jokes, and familiar sequences; and those new to the Evil Dead world are thrilled and enthralled throughout. Evil Dead: The Musical is a show that relies heavily on gags and props, unsurprisingly, and the work of Christopher Patrick in Wigs, Make Up, and Special FX, and Amber Kocher as Props Master is absolutely exceptional, converting the small but inviting stage into the surreal, demonic campground with the most tantalizing precision.
Performance-wise, the cast of Evil Dead: The Musical is top-tier. As the main gang, B.A. Goodnack (Ash), Kait Descutner (Linda), Adam Fladd (Scott), Mandie Russak (Shelly), and Laura Barletta (Cheryl), are explosively comical (sometimes, quite literally), extraordinarily well-studied, and share a marvelous chemistry with one another that elevates the already gut-bustingly funny (again, sometimes, quite literally) show into pure sublime territory. Barletta is particularly dazzling as the archetypal nerdy, tag-a-long sister who is the first of the group to be savagely turned into a lascivious, pun-abusing undead demon, and her outlandish comedic chops are rivaled only by her mighty vocal prowess. Russak is also a wildly electric as a scene-stealing Shelly, with bawdy theatrics and subtle nuances invigorating every moment she’s on stage.
The entire cast knocks the proverbial ball, and some literal limbs and other body parts, out of the park, and each performer is integral in creating perfect (if not ludicrous) cohesion throughout a story that encompasses a plethora of wild elements from three different films. Brady D. Patsy, who is always a joy to watch regardless the size of his role, is marvelous as Dr. Knowby, the foolhardy professor responsible for unleashing the demons and the curses of the
“Necromicon.” Patsy tempers his mellifluous intensity with his character’s sheer bufoonery, and he serves as a hilarious anchor throughout the story. Similarly, Whitney Noelle (who plays Annie, researcher and Dr. Knowby’s daughter) is brilliant in portraying Annie’s officious spunk in an utterly charming way, and she effortlessly fulfills the role of the tenacious-despite-her-obliviousness narrator.
While I’m certainly tendentious as a fan of horror, a fan of Evil Dead, AND a fan of wildly campy musicals, I can say with unwavering certainty that Evil Dead: The Musical is the most jubilantly disgusting, viciously hilarious, phenomenally-acted evening of pure fun you can hope to experience. Come for the chainsaw hands, stay for the outstanding, bizzaro songs like “What the Fuck Was That?”, “Look Who’s Evil Now,” and “We Will Never Die.” Do like the demons say and just JOIN US.
Evil Dead plays at Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Gargaro Theater in the West End through Oct. 19th. For tickets and more information, visit their site. (Show is recommended for mature audiences).
Photography Credit: Melissa Wallace
Categories: Archived Reviews