I feel a little like John Hinckley Jr. writing a review of Taxi Driver. It's hard for me to be objective here.
I was primed to like this musical well before I showed up on the steps of the New World Stages in New York City. I mean, take the Evil Dead films, add campy songs like "What the Fuck Was That?" and "Do the Necronomicon," stir in lots of stage blood that gets liberally dumped on the first three rows of audience members (aka the "Splatter Zone"), sprinkle on some drunk and passionate fans, and, really, how could you go wrong?
It's like putting sugar, real butter, and heavy cream together -- odds are, it'll be delicious whatever happens.
I've been a huge fan since high school. As I leaf through the misty pages of memory, I alight upon one image -- a bunch of pubescent high school kids gleefully giggling as Bruce Campbell quips "Gimme some sugar baby" in Army of Darkness. And then collapsing in hysterics with my best friends Andy (aka Andrew Kozma, also a RevSF writer) and Tammy imitate Campbell when he screams "Who's laughing now?" while he saws off his evil, infected hand. To me, life gets no better than Evil Dead 2 watched with some beer and good friends.
I'm not the only one with such fond memories of Sam Raimi's persistent cult classic trilogy. The Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, and Army of Darkness have a surprisingly large and devoted fan following -- something I witnessed when Bruce Campbell came to UNC to do a signing for If Chins Could Kill. The signing was overflowing, and the line to get your book autographed took, quite literally, hours.
Bruce Campbell is the Bono of the cult horror films world. Believe me, that book he signed for me -- I'm never washing it.
So, that's a big caveat. I admit it -- I'm not an unbiased source when it comes to all things Evil Dead related. But, like most rabid fans, I'm highly prepared to bare my fangs and snarl over anything lackluster or out of character with the skillful blend of camp and horror that characterizes Evil Dead. If masterminds George Reinblatt, Christopher Bond, Frank Cipolla, and Melissa Morris had tried to pass off some high-falutin', high-production-values, artsy-fartsy nonsense as an Evil Dead musical, or if they had cast anyone who could channel being both smarmy and clueless (ah, Ash, we love you!) less well than Ryan Ward, I'd be letting you know.
Luckily, this musical hits all the right, gory notes.
Dead Can Dance
George Reinblatt did the lyrics, and a four-person team (Reinblatt, Frank Cipolla, Melissa Morris, and Christopher Bond) created the music. Together, they've created a light-hearted and irreverent musical experience that steals from the popular music genres of the eighties: from the romantic duet ("Housewares Employee"), the Meat Loaf-esque rock opera song ("Good Old Reliable Jake"), the traditional Broadway dance tune ("Bit Part Demon"), the dance sensation ("Do the Necronomicon," which bears some uncanny similarities to the "Time Warp"), and finally the tango ("What the . . . ?" features Ash and Scott tangoing together).
All along the way, the music brilliantly interweaves our traditional expectations for songs of a given genre with our knowledge of the Evil Dead oeuvre. When Jake sings about doing all the ladies on The View (especially funny as the Evil Dead: The Musical cast did a promotional number on that show). When Shelly responds to Ash's heartfelt line "Who knew a housewares employee would land the perfect girl?" with "Who knew the perfect girl would land a housewares employee," you know you're not in the average schmaltzy musical. You're in Ash-land.
During your visit to Ash-land, try to sit in the first three rows. This area is known as the "Splatter Zone," and tickets are only $25 a pop. These seats are cheaper than all the other seats, and BETTER, because you're nearly guaranteed to get covered in bloody goo. In the second act, the blood starts to flow, and it flows liberally -- all over your glasses, T-shirt, and jeans. Guests in the Splatter Zone thus usually eschew the general swanky Broadway dress code and opt for something easily washable.
Most of the time (though these were sold out when we were there) you can buy a white "Splatter Zone" T-shirt to better document your machismo and fashion sense, which will display the splattered blood to full effect. There were even different kinds of blood: at least two, maybe three: a liquidy, light-red concoction used for broad coverage of audience members, a thicker, dark-red, ketchupy material that was more clot-esque, and (my husband claims) a white liquid that resembled pus.
Hello, Lover . . .
We were particularly well placed to observe the stage blood. Row A is the front row, and you're then directly under the action, with barely enough leg room. But if you were to be in this row -- and then manage to sit in seats 107 and 108 (dead center) as we did -- you're in for some additional fun.
There's a little "x" marked on the stage in front of one of those seats, an "x" that stands for "x-tra interactive goodness." Cheryl (played by Jenna Coker) will reach out and grab you as she's dragged off by salacious trees. Later, if you're as lucky as my husband, demon Cheryl will call you a pussy.
During act two, theatre employees will pass out ponchos to those in the first three rows who would rather not get covered in bloody goo. My husband took a poncho, while I did not (since I'm a badass). During one of the later musical numbers, Cheryl slid forward, leaned into my husband's face, and asked him if he was scared. When he -- not sure what the correct answer might be -- nodded yes, she called him a pussy and told him to take off his poncho. When he declined, he became the preferred target for some of the subsequent blood flinging. That was ok, though, since it just bounced off his poncho onto me. And as far as I was concerned, the more blood, the merrier.
That's one of many similarities with the Evil Dead films. The blood is copious. The musical also uses many of the same lines as Evil Dead, lifting large passages or famous lines from all three of the films. The Ash in this musical is an amalgam of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, as he uses many of Army-Ash's better one-liners (especially those relating to boomsticks and sugar). There's a talking moose; mysterious, inexplicable sound effects; an evil, rampaging hand; and almost every good thing you could want from the films.
A couple notable things that are changed: the tree rape scene is rather euphemistic. Any audience member who hasn't seen the films may not know what really happens there. Reading the first of the passages from the book's extra pages does NOT cause the demonic presence to manifest in the flesh; instead, it causes the demons to do a "Hellish Ritual" (aka a dance number).
Bobbie Joe does not show up, because, as Jake helpfully explains, her role of trampy-non-girlfriend seems extraneous once you add in Shelly, the slutty girl toy of Scott (two characters actually from the original Evil Dead film). But none of this comes across as unfaithful; it's all done with such panache, and such devoted attention to the feel of the films, that you'd forgive Reinblatt, Bond, et al. almost anything.
Please Forgive Me, Ryan Ward!
But I must make my own apologies too. As we were leaving the theatre, my bud Casey asked me what I thought of the actor playing Ash, Ryan Ward. I responded, "He was too skinny," meaning to follow that with paeans of praise -- but, unfortunately, Ryan Ward chose that moment to walk out of the theatre behind me. He said, "Thanks!" and headed out.
I screamed "But you were great!" after him, but I still feel bad. If you ever read this, Ryan: please forgive me.
Because Ryan Ward was awesome. Yes, he's much skinnier than Bruce Campbell -- something you can't help but notice if you're a girl for whom Bruce's bloody biceps are the pinnacle of all things that make you go "hmmmmmm." Ryan did have some nice biceps-action going on, but he's just built much leaner than Bruce -- something that actually makes Ash's hyper-masculine posing all the funnier.
Ryan Ward does have Bruce's facial bone structure; he could raise one eyebrow skillfully, and when he proclaimed "This is my boomstick!" you wanted to drop what you were doing and worship him as king.
All the acting was solid. A couple standouts: Jenna Coker as Ash's little sister Cheryl was excellent. She gets some of the better lines of the musical, as once she becomes evil she gains a penchant for really awful puns. Darryl Winslow as Jake was also particularly good. I still remember getting inadvertently drizzled by spittle during Darryl's impassioned rendition of "Good Old Reliable Jake." Good times.
So, you need to head to NYC. Don't wait. The tickets are cheap. Stay at the Amsterdam Court, like we did -- it's only a block away, and very reasonably priced for a clean NYC hotel room.
I promise you, your life will be better if you go. I know because it makes me happy to live in a universe in which Evil Dead: The Musical exists -- where you can buy big foam chainsaw hands, where you can drink "Evil Death" vodka/cranberry juice drinks in your plastic-covered seat, where you can sit next to two hysterically drunk Canadian women who periodically shout "Show us your boomstick!"
Things like this bolster my faith in humankind.