BWW Review: There Will Be Blood at Moonlight Players Theatre's EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL
There's blood on my program. At first, I thought it was a printing design, but upon further inspection, I realized that, yes, I have blood stains on my program. Normally, I would be concerned, but given that the first three rows at the Moonlight Players Theatre have been designated "Splatter Zone," I didn't think much more of it from the safety of my seventh-row seat. Having played out to sold out crowds in its first and second weeks, Moonlight Players' EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL will end its run this coming post-Halloween weekend. But fear not, Deadites, for you can also catch Ash Williams and his boomstick on a special Halloween performance as well. The hugely-popular Off-Broadway musical condenses Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy into a two-act musical that celebrates the films' subversive comedy take on 1980s gore. And it does so with a gusto and a panache that knows just how ridiculous and trope-heavy the source material is.
For those who haven't seen 1981's The Evil Dead, 1987's Evil Dead II, or 1992's Army of Darkness, the musical may seem off-beat at first. To be fair, only scant elements of the third film are utilized, but just enough to be acceptable and workable in the story. The end result still shows just how tightly this three-film story has been honed. The premise starts simple enough: five college kids road trip to an isolated cabin in the woods for a spring break weekend of love, lust, and debauchery as only horny teenagers can bring. Our core five characters - Ash (Alex Gerard), Linda (Claudia Louise Fain), Scott (Jeffrey Lane Sadecky), Shelly (Heather Quinn), and Cheryl (Caitlin Elizabeth Nicholas) - happily sing about their upcoming vacation, blissfully aware that the premise itself could only be found in a horror film.
These kids soon discover the skinbound Book of the Dead along with a cassette tape which, when played, recites an ancient Sumerian incantation that awakens the evil of the world. Said evil manifests itself as demons and spirits possessing and killing the college kids one by one. Act One condenses the eighty-five minute film into a compact, musical abridgement that gives us the best parts of the '81 film. When Act Two begins, we're strictly in Evil Dead II territory, thus giving us more stage time with three additional characters: redneck Jake (Thomas John Kline), redhead Annie Knowby (Heather Quinn pulling double duty), and red-shirt Ed (Bryce Hall). More happens here, but honestly, by Act Two you're going along for the ride with a devil-may-care attitude towards the actual story at play. It's in the second act that the sly lampshading of both films thrive.
Often described as the next Rocky Horror Picture Show, the central conceit of EVIL DEAD is not so much that it is a faithful adaptation of Raimi's films, but that it knows it's adapting something so beloved by cult horror fans. It is willing to criticize of its source material and the works in which the original Evil Dead was poking fun as well. Time and again, characters are quick to point out a trope about to be shown, a logical fallacy in the story, the uselessness of a character, or even just the sheer lunacy in who ends up being the "Final Girl" of the entire piece. Comedy from this musical doesn't stem from classic joke set-up, but more upon the audience already being in on the joke (i.e. have seen the films), and already knowing the punchline before the set-up.
I'm conflicted on whether or not to call EVIL DEAD a parody musical, as much of the thrill of the piece relies on poking fun at its own source material. Having seen a fair share of parody musicals, what distinguishes EVIL DEAD from the others - at least for me - is that most others make their jokes at the expense of the source material. EVIL DEAD is no less guilty of this, but on the other hand, also makes these kinds of jokes with a loving reverence for its origins. After all, the Raimi film is a comedy of its own, so a "parody of a parody" almost seems to cancel out any ill-will towards whatever the source may be. At the end of the day, the fact that people successfully made a musical out of a slasher film is a feat in and of itself.
To be fair, it's only within the opening scenes that we get a sense of a more straightforward, direct parody. The character's cheerfulness and clearly-rehearsed delivery of lines seem better suited for the satirical musical Reefer Madness than how they appear in the rest of EVIL DEAD. Then again, perhaps that's part of the joke. The audience gets hustled into expecting a spoof like Reefer Madness, but end up with the meta-awareness of Deadpool.
Much of that meta commentary comes from Ash Williams, the de facto fearless leader. He makes sly remarks aplenty toward the audience, clearly as the only one in on the joke. These occasional breakings of the fourth wall feel more at home here on the stage than the few times it works in filmed projects. Think Zack Morris of "Saved by the Bell" or Wade Wilson in the aforementioned Deadpool. These characters speak to a virtual audience, and it's up to us if we choose to react, but there's no real "payoff" for the character afterwards. They rely strictly on the assumption that the audience will have a reaction. On the stage, our Ash Williams gets the benefit of live audience giving the proper feedback to his quick asides and occasional ad-libs. It better helps him gauge what lines work, when to make just the right comment, and to whom those comments may be directed.
Playing Ash Williams is Alex Gerard, who previously wielded the boomstick for Moonlight Players' 2017 production of the show. With this familiarity in his pocket, as well as a clear affinity for the stage, Gerard charms the audience throughout the entire show. He feeds well off the energy of his cast mates and the audience, rendering his character as the heart of the musical. People come to see EVIL DEAD mainly for Ash Williams, so it's a tall order that Gerard has to fill. Ash has been so clearly identified with the Bruce Campbell that renditions of the character by most any other performer sometimes borders on unintentional parody as they try to imitate and copy Campbell's mannerisms and delivery. Gerard goes a different route, using Campbell's portrayal as a baseline, but giving an interpretation of Ash that feels genuinely original. He throws in little motions, stances, and the occasional smolder, each of which makes us acutely aware that Ash Williams is never really as altogether as he says he is, but he has to be for his own sense of self-preservation. Imagine, if you could, Flynn Rider of Disney's Tangled getting caught up in a slasher film. Putting on a huge front of bravery and derring-do for everyone, when in reality he's just a kid who doesn't want to die.
Likewise, Heather Quinn deserves mention for portraying the clearly-useless Shelly and, in Act Two, the mostly-useful Annie. Any performer who portrays multiple roles in a stage production deserves kudos because the audience - already familiar with their face - must forget everything about who they were before and accept this new character from them. It's done often enough on soap operas, when a performer suddenly plays the "newly-discovered evil twin" who is far and away a complete departure from their original character. Within EVIL DEAD, we're not getting any soap opera tropes, but it still requires the discipline to play two entirely different people, and to make it believable for our audience. Quinn delivers this in both characters. I'm partial to her portrayal of Annie, mainly because she fulfills a purpose and provides a greater sense of conflict in the show compared to Shelly, who even the other characters acknowledge as an otherwise total stranger.
As mentioned in my review of the theatre's previous production (Dial M for Murder), the company of players like to keep everything all in the family, as it were. EVIL DEAD is no different, as we learn during intermission that the portrayer of Cheryl (Caitlin Elizabeth Nicholas), will also be directing the theatre's production of Tuck Everlasting this coming April. Like Gerard, Nicholas is another holdover from 2017's production, meaning that she, too, is familiar with the part. More importantly, she's already developed an easy back-and-forth with Gerard as her on-screen brother. The two share that particular chemistry which allows us to see their sibling dynamics - even in horror schlock - as believable. In addition, Nicholas absolutely relishes in playing the "stupid bitch" of the show, turning what would have been an annoying shrew into a lovable scene stealer. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what she brings to Tuck Everlasting next spring.
Rounding out the cast are some new blood and old favorites. Thomas John Kline (Jake) has been part of Moonlight Players for nearly twenty years now, but unfortunately will not be with the show for its final weekend, so director Tad Kincade will fill the role. I'm fairly certain I've seen Jeffrey Lane Sadecky (Scott) in other local productions; he's a fine character actor who makes his turn memorable in what could be a thankless role. Newcomers include Claudia Louise Fain as Linda and Bryce Hall as Ed, both of whom shine brightly in their signature songs ("Housewares Employee" for Linda, "Bit Part Demon" for Ed), and play a bigger part in the ensemble finale. Hall, I should also point out, gets to play a Moose's head mounted on the wall, giving EVIL DEAD an unexpected sense of "Sesame Street" whimsy. Well, if "Sesame Street" were an adult musical about Count Von Count biting everyone into vampires and Cookie Monster terrorizing everyone at Hooper's Store.
As an adult musical, EVIL DEAD carries with it that hard R rating. Not so much for the blood splatter and the gory dismemberment, but also for the frequently-dropped f-bombs and other suggestive language. Children are definitely not recommended to see this at Moonlight, although an early pre-show joke suggested one was (he was actually there for auditions of The Drowsy Chaperone). I'm not a parent, but I can't imagine I'd take my own (future) kids to see this kind of show until they were of an older persuasion. Of course, my reasoning is not based on the subject matter, but more on theatre etiquette. No amount of blood and guts compares to the terrified screams of a child. Likewise, although they were more discreet about its use, several instances of strobe lighting were done throughout the show so for those in which such effects pose a problem, please bear that in mind as well.
Now, let's get back to that blood on my program. I should have been concerned. I didn't want to be, but I should have been. I watched throughout the show as, at the most opportune times, stagehands took out rather lavish water guns and sprayed the first three rows when the scenes called for them. Thick jets of blood shot out towards the prepared victims, as audience members who buy a seat in that row get an EVIL DEAD t-shirt to cover themselves. By intermission, reception toward the blood was mixed. I could see among the attendees various degrees of splatter, and heard a couple guests complain "It wasn't worth it, I barely got a drop!" whilst others were drenched. Your mileage may vary on the splatter, but also on general physics of a stream of liquid propelled from one point across to another, and who may or may be in that line of fire. It became much more fun sitting in my row and watching the reactions of those shot with blood compared to, I assume, getting shot in the first place. At the end of the show, I asked someone what was in the blood, and was relieved to learn it was just corn starch, jello, and soap suds, the last of which helps make for an easy clean.
Regardless where you sit for EVIL DEAD, the show itself is a delight. I've not talked much about the music in the piece (after all, it is still a musical), mainly because the strength lies more in watching all the technical pieces come in to play, seeing just how well a production pulls off dismemberment, removal of entrails, a headless body terrorizing, and so on and so forth. The songs are, honestly, take 'em or leave 'em quality. None ever stood out to me, although I did enjoy the brilliant tango choreography of "What the F*** Was That?" and the Rocky Horror Picture Show riff-off of "Do the Necronomicon." But overall, as I mentioned before, you come to EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL not for the music, but to see Ash Williams drenched in blood as he wields a chainsaw attached to his arm.
Finally, on a more sentimental note, at the production of EVIL DEAD that I attended, attention was drawn to a couple sitting in the first row of the theatre. They had gone to Moonlight Players' 2017 production two years prior on a first date. When Moonlight brought the show back, they came once more, but now as an engaged couple, complete with customized t-shirts boldly proclaiming, "Look Who's Engaged Now!", emulating the oft-repeated "Look Who's Evil Now!" phrase of the musical. At the half-and-half intermission drawing, the couple ended up winning! A joke was made that in a couple years, they'll remount EVIL DEAD and actually marry them on the stage. If that's not a better endorsement to go out and support live theatre, I don't know what is. Tickets for the final weekend of EVIL DEAD are available direct from Moonlight Players, but be forewarned the previous two weekends had sold out.