Back in 1980 director Sam Raimi and actor Bruce Campbell set out to make a low-budget horror movie full of zombies, chainsaws, and girls running around in their underwear. This might sound like a cinematic disaster, but the result was a very promising film called Evil Dead. A few years later the two set out to make a sequel, this time with a bigger budget, a better script, and much more filmmaking experience. The result of this second try was Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, a masterpiece of the horror/comedy genre called "Splatstick." The film was an instant cult classic and spawned a third Evil Dead film, Army of Darkness. The franchise launched Raimi into a career as a blockbuster director (Spiderman) and propelled Campbell to cult icon status.
Evil Dead has been adapted into other mediums like comic books, video games, and tabletop RPGs, so it's not surprising to see it turned into a musical as well. However, what made the films great was the combination of Raimi's direction and Campbell's hammy acting. Can an adaptation deprived of those key elements satisfy Evil Dead's loyal fans and, more importantly, will it entertain the millions of theatre-goers who've never even seen the movies?
Of course it can!
The Evil Dead films have a great story, mountains of terrific dialogue, and star one of the 20th century's most iconic horror characters: Ash, the zombie-fightin', wise-crackin' S-Mart employee. With all of this to draw from, it isn't surprising that the show is non-stop fun for fans of the films, as well as people who've never even heard of Bruce Campbell.
The book (George Reinblatt) composites story elements (and dialogue) from all three of the films, but fans will recognize the bulk of the show as coming from Evil Dead II.
For those who haven't even heard of Evil Dead, it's about a group of college kids who decide to spend the weekend in a secluded cabin in the woods. There, they stumble across the Necronomicon: an ancient, mystic tome—"Bound in human flesh, and inked in human blood"—full of evil spells that resurrect slumbering demons. It's not long before most of the cast becomes possessed by Candarian demons and, eventually, the only one left to save the world from evil is Ash (Ryan Ward), a smart-ass armed with a rusty chainsaw, a sawed-off shotgun, and a six-pack of whoop-ass.
Evil Dead: The Musical is presented in a high camp style, which spoofs the horror genre, occasionally dropping self-aware gags about the plot holes in the Evil Dead films (and therefore plot holes in the adaptation). There's also a heapin' dose of in-jokes for Sam Raimi fans too, like cast member Ryan Williams being credited as a "Fake Shemp" (Google it).
It also parodies musical theatre too, with its exposition-laden opening number, big silly dance routines, and an epic romantic duet about retail workers in love. Reinblatt's lyrics are very clever, and some of the song ideas are brilliant; like a zombie (Tom Walker) who sings about the woes of being a "Bit Part Demon" who'll undoubtedly get killed by the hero (and kudos to Walker for standing out so much in his bit part role).
The musical style is rock 'n' roll, with a doo-wop sound and surf influences. It sometimes sounds a little too much like Rocky Horror, but Reinblatt seems to be aware of this, even dropping in a reference to "The Time Warp."
It would be unfair to measure leading man Ryan Ward against his movie counterpart Bruce Campbell. Let's just say that Ward does as good a job as you're likely to see in the role of Ash outside of Campbell himself. The lanky, big-chinned Ward is goofy and handsome at the same time, and really knows how to swing a chainsaw.
There's phenomenal design present; the makeup, costumes, sound, and lights are terrific, but David Gallo's set deserves the most praise. The secluded cabin is packed with clever tricks that allow zombies to be thrown through walls, inanimate objects to suddenly appear to come to life, and the whole thing is rigged to spew blood during the climactic battle scene when Ash fights off the army of darkness.
Horror fans will recognize director/choreographer Hinton Battle from his work on the musical episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which he choreographed in addition to playing a singing demon. Battle is the perfect choice for this project. In fact, the show is strongest in the sequences where Battle deviates from Raimi's style in the films. This is especially true for the musical numbers, which really make this interpretation of Evil Dead a unique piece of the franchise.
Even though this is great fun for Evil Dead fans, it's not a perfect show. At times it can be a little too self aware, and some of the recurring gags wear out their welcome (like a demon who tortures people with bad puns). There are a lot of memorable lines and moments in the Evil Dead trilogy, which puts the show in a catch-22 situation; fans will be furious if their favorite line is missing, but Reinblatt can't fit five hours of movie dialogue into a two-hour musical (though he surely could have worked in "Klaatu! Barada! Nikto"). As a result, a lot of classic Ash speeches get shoehorned in awkwardly.
Even though it's not perfect, I haven't had this much fun at a show in the past year, nor do I remember ever seeing another musical where someone cuts off his girlfriend's head with a chainsaw, then has to kill her zombified head again, in a later scene. If you think Sweeney Todd is for sissies; you need to see this show.