Arts & CultureTheater Notes

Evil Dead: The Musical

A remote cabin in the woods. Five horny teenagers. Ancient curses. Zombies and demons. Severed limbs. Gallons and gallons of blood. Sound familiar? Kind of like the set-up of a certain famous horror series? Well, partially—but it’s also the premise for the funniest musical you’re likely to see this year.

Just in time to kick off Halloween, Town & Gown Players present Evil Dead: The Musical. Now, you might be thinking that Evil Dead would make a terrible stage production, but let me assure you that you’re wrong. The show is a smart, sharp homage to Sam Raimi’s now classic horror-comedy trilogy. Each act of the play follows one of the films (though Army of Darkness is reduced to a pithy one-liner, somewhat appropriately), and fans of the series will love seeing the indelible franchise come to life onstage. Fans of Raimi’s other work will also enjoy the various Easter eggs spread throughout the show. This isn’t to say that fans of musical theatre as a form will be disappointed. The show sports a variety of musical styles and all the hallmarks of a big Broadway musical: the ingénue’s song, a love ballad, a flashy (and demon-filled!) 11 o’clock number. There’s even a ballet-style dance that stars a headless corpse. Now, if you go in expecting Oklahoma! then you’re in for a rude awakening, but you’d have to have the pulse of a Deadite to be bored during Evil Dead: The Musical.

The musical was born in a small bar in Toronto as an audacious labor of love by a group of comedians and musicians, and the show eventually received an Off-Broadway production that was famously brief. When I spoke with director Steven Carroll, he mentioned that the show, a “cheesy comedy about people being chopped into pieces,” has enjoyed a successful second life in smaller theatres around the country. “I think you need to feel the claustrophobia and the confines of the cabin,” he said. “In a 200-seat house, you’d lose the immediacy. The energy wouldn’t be right. The show needs to feed off the fun of the audience.” 

Carroll, who describes himself as an avid horror fan, seems perfectly suited to the material. He staged a successful Rocky Horror Show last year that featured a popular midnight performance. There’s one logistical problem that’s standing in the way of repeating that with Evil Dead, though. “Well, we’re using so much blood in the performance that I really don’t want the crew to stay here all night mopping!” Carroll says. True to the source material, this musical looks like the elevator scene in The Shining, and the special effects are remarkable. 

I talked with makeup artist Cathie Cabe backstage about her process as she was applying some of the Deadite masks to the cast members. Shockingly, this is the first theatre production she’s ever worked on. She’s a huge fan of the Raimi films, though, and has experience doing undead and zombie makeup effects for the Halloween season. “It’s different, and everything takes about a million times longer than you think it will,” she laughs as she replaces one of the Deadite masks on the plaster molds she used to shape them to the actors’ faces.

Another major challenge is that there are practical factors at work here. A Halloween zombie doesn’t have to have his or her mouth free to hit high notes, but these demonically possessed actors do. The script also didn’t do Cabe any favors. “Both Ash and Linda have to transform to demons and back again onstage. I had to make sure the masks could attach and stay on well but also come off and not leave any residue on the actors’ faces. My diet is basically sugar these days.” The makeup artist may be sleep deprived, but it’s not in vain. The Deadite faces perfectly evoke memories of the films while making the show a unique, lived experience.

Longtime fans of Town & Gown will be impressed by how radically the space has been transformed. One of the most remarkable achievements of the design team is their inventive set that almost functions like another character in the play. The homey cabin that occupies the bulk of the stage will slowly become a blood-soaked hellscape, but not without some fun gags. There are set pieces that move independently as Ash’s sanity frays and the cellar that hosts Ash’s sister, whose entrances are reminiscent of a demonic Oscar the Grouch. There’s also one sight gag/character who ranks among the play’s funniest moments, which I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say, you’ll know it when you see it. 

Fans of the film will recall that one of the major villains is the woods themselves. The script and this production have a remarkably clever solution for bringing the possessed forest to life. The whole production has the feel of a warped Jim Henson nightmare. For Carroll, this is a large part of the show’s appeal. He says, “There are no trees we can do in here, but that’s part of the charm.” Charm is the exact word for it, too. Speaking with him and the other members of the team, there’s a sense of such affection for the piece that it’s easy to see why they’re so successful. At the end of the day, it’s enjoyable to watch a group of people who are clearly having this much fun together. Finally, asked if there’s anything else that the audience should be aware of coming in, Carroll thinks for a second before he says, “Please laugh!” 

He doesn’t have to worry.