Song and Splatter

What is it about cult movies and stage musicals that seem to go together so well? Perhaps reality is pushed so far in cult films that the next logical step is for characters to burst into song. The Producers and Monty Python's Spamalot both had music and dance in their original film versions, so adding more of both to their theatrical reincarnations wasn't much of a stretch. But how do you explain the idea of turning a no-budget indie horror film into a mega-budget, Off-Broadway musical spectacle? Such is the case with Evil Dead: The Musical, based on director Sam Raimi's horror trilogy that grew campier and more popular with each installment until it peaked with 1992's Army of Darkness. These movies starred a then-unknown actor named Bruce Campbell, a no-nonsense Midwesterner with a prominent chin and a snarlingly hip delivery that gave lines like "Gimme some sugar, baby" catchphrase status among college students and "hipsterati." Raimi's blend of horror and humor worked because his movies were fun, earnest, and self-aware without being too snarky.

The musical's creators have mixed together the plot of the first two films and the famous lines and ending from the third, adding music, dance, and an extra cup of camp. What they've cooked up is an airy soufflé full of weak meta-jokes and a generic score. The audience, clearly hungry to see this material on the stage, gobbles up empty calories of winky references and a clever set design, not pausing to realize that maybe tonight's pop culture junk food isn't worth tomorrow's post-binge guilt at having spent $66 on a half-baked live version when you can spend less by buying the three DVDs.

There are some things that really work in this production: the cabin set is great, the direction and pacing are slick, and Ryan Ward (who bears a passing resemblance to a skinnier Bruce Campbell in the first film) is both charming and bad-ass as the hero Ash, possessing a great voice and a strong stage presence. The gorefest of Act 2 is well choreographed and certainly gives people in the $26 seat "Splatter Zone" their money's worth in fake blood.

But the script is drowning in mockery, and the faux-earnest musical numbers, while well rehearsed, are, for the most part, too clever for their own good. (The love song between Ash and Linda, "Housewares Employee," and Ash's song "I'm Not a Killer" do work, perhaps because Ward is able to put them over with enough earnestness to diffuse their sting.)

It's a shame that book writer George Reinblatt felt the need to punch up the original script so much; the source material, played straight, would have served up better laughs than some of the mean-spirited and downright uninspired humor put in its place. (A male character calling one of the female characters "stupid bitch" over and over again isn't funny, even if he winds up with his entrails ripped out by evil trees.)

As a fan of Raimi and Campbell's work, separately and together, I really wanted to like this musical (I've been on the show's e-mail list for months). Coming into the show, I tried not to have high expectations, assuming that it would be a lot like it was—all bouncy songs, movie lines, and blood sprays. But while watching it and thinking about it later, I realized there's nothing wrong with high expectations. This show just doesn't satisfy like the movie.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post