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Evil Dead: The Musical

on Mon, 06/30/2014 - 00:00

There are many classic horror films, from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to Wes Craven’s Scream, but the number that have been adapted into a stage musical is infinitely smaller. In 2003, however, a group of Canadian college students at Queen’s University in Ontario decided to reimagine Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead as part of their musical theater class. Amazingly enough, the combination of horror and song actually worked, and with the blessing of both Raimi and actor Bruce Campbell, a staged version was held in Toronto later that year. The success of the endeavor quickly led to an Off-Broadway run in 2006 as well as an on-going engagement at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. More significantly, over 150 different regional theaters around the world have staged performances of Evil Dead: The Musical, making it the Twenty First Century equivalent of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Writer/director Sam Raimi and veteran actor Bruce Campbell initially created three Evil Dead films as part of a trilogy, and Evil Dead: The Musical finds a way to incorporate the main plotlines of the first two while adding key dialogue from the third as well. The first act, for instance, is primarily based on the original Evil Dead from 1981, while the second act follows the narrative of 1987’s Evil Dead II. Like those films, the main setting for Evil Dead: The Musical is a cabin in the woods containing an ancient book that has the ability to raise an ancient evil. The third movie in the series, Army of Darkness, takes place in the medieval 1300s, and while not directly a part of Evil Dead: The Musical, the backstory of lead character Ash Williams’ employment in the housewares department of retail chain S-Mart, classic lines like “This is my Boomstick!” and even the final scene from Army of Darkness are part of the musical nonetheless.

In addition to Ash Williams, all of the main characters from both Evil Dead and Evil Dead II appear in Evil Dead: The Musical, with the exception of Bobby Joe and Henrietta from the second installment. Some of the characters have been altered—most notably the now dimwitted blond Shelly from the original Evil Dead—while both Annie and Ed from Evil Dead II have been tweaked to give them a more comic persona. These subtractions and alterations, however, only add to the overall enjoyment of Evil Dead: The Musical, giving the narrative the necessary cohesion needed to bridge the two films on which it is primarily based. While the Evil Dead from 1981 was a straight-forward horror flick, Evil Dead II often served as a parody of the genre to go along with the horror, and Evil Dead: The Musical has fully embraced the comedic elements of Sam Raimi’s scripts and Bruce Campbell’s performances.

During June 2014, Pittsburgh theater troupe No Name Players brought Evil Dead: The Musical to the Steel City for a three week engagement at Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie. David Bielewicz portrayed Ash Williams, giving a spot-on Bruce Campbell impersonation while still managing to make the character his own. Bielewicz recited iconic lines from the original films with the proper amount of bravado, for instance, and likewise demonstrated his slapstick abilities during the scene from Evil Dead II in which Ash’s right hand becomes possessed by evil forces. Evil Dead: The Musical is obviously a musical, however, and here again David Bielewicz exceled, as did all of the actors in the production. Although the other characters are primarily combined to only one act—either being killed off during the first or having the bulk of the appearances confined to the second—each actor was nonetheless given their own opportunity to shine, and they seized it.

Of particular note were Maggie Carr and Andrew Swackhamer, Annie and Ed from Evil Dead II. As already mentioned, the characters are slightly altered from the originals, giving them a more comic appeal as Annie continually interrupts Ed by finishing his thoughts and sentences. Both also have solo singing opportunities during the second act, and in Pittsburgh the actors rose to the occasion with exceptional zeal—first Swackhamer with “Bit Part Demon” and then Carr with her rendition of “All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons.” Rounding out the cast were Philippe Arroyo (Scott), Julianne Avolio (Cheryl), Parag S. Gohel (Professor Knowby), Adriana Milbrath (Shelly), Brad Stephenson (Jake) and Madeline Wolf (Linda).

Because of the scope of the special effects needed for a production like Evil Dead: The Musical, No Name Players launched a Kickstarter campaign in April 2014 to raise the necessary funds to make their version as successful as possible. The money gathered was put to good use, allowing No Name Players to enlist local award-winning special effects artist Steve Tolin to help create the overall atmosphere of the performance. In addition to Tolin, Andrew Hosmer of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh was contracted to fabricate a mounted moose head for the cabin that comes “alive” at one point during the production—as it does within the film Evil Dead II—swinging its head from side-to-side while likewise talking and singing. It was an amazing piece of special effects, and the official program for the Pittsburgh production of Evil Dead: The Musical listed no less than eight additional designers besides Hosmer who assisted in its construction.

Then there’s the blood splatter. Both Evil Dead and Evil Dead II used buckets of blood within their frames, and Evil Dead: The Musical is no different. Although the first few rows of Off the Wall Theater were designated as splash zones, No Name Players emphasized that no one was immune, going so far as to ask patrons to sign blood splatter wavers and handing out plastic ponchos for those in attendance to wear. Rather than be deterred, however, audience members embraced this aspect of the performance, anticipating the coming onslaught during scenes involving a chainsaw and later an axe used to dismember various body parts. Those scenes were paltry compared to the unexpected moments of Act II and the literal blood-bath that arrived as Evil Dead: The Musical reached its climax.

No Name Player’s director Don DiGiulio tied all of these competing elements of Evil Dead: The Musical—the acting, singing, special effects and blood splatter—into a tight package that perfectly fit Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie. The V Theater at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, for instance, has a 450-seat capacity and offers a staggering 100-seat splatter zone for its ongoing performances of Evil Dead: The Musical. The Off the Wall Theater has a 96-seat capacity in comparison, but in the hands of DiGiulio and the rest of the No Name Player’s production staff, the cozier space made the Pittsburgh version of Evil Dead: The Musical an equally enjoyable—if not arguably better—experience than anything the flash and glitter of Vegas can conjure.

Anthony Letizia

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