[image-1]Five clueless Midwestern college kids make their way to a secluded cabin in the woods, with thoughts of spending spring break alternating between hook ups and maybe some beer pong. They manage, instead, to unleash an evil force from the Book of the Dead, opening a vortex of demonic possession that compels them to turn against each other limb by mangled limb.
Sound like the makings of feel-good musical theater? It’s scary, but curiously true. Evil Dead: The Musical, which takes a gooey, ghoulish swipe at horror film shock and schlock, now rushes the stage at Threshold Repertory Theatre with craven zeal, thanks to a collaborative project between Threshold Rep and What If? Productions, directed by Kyle Barnette.
Infectiously, intentionally inane, this high-octane, lowbrow romp of a show makes blood sport of the Evil Dead cult horror trilogy, simultaneously celebrating and skewering the genre. Think fake blood madly splattering into the “splash zone” theater seats, foot-stomping numbers flashing freakish with strobe lights, and shout-outs from the audience a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show. With amped-up camp and mega-energy, this self-possessed, unapologetically silly production is by design a hilarious hot mess, spilling its guts and glee so that we can enjoy the lighter side of, well, darkness.
After all, there is no better spoof bait than a low-budget horror film, especially when the stage sendup finds its origins in the 1981 The Evil Dead. The movie was the brainchild of director Sam Raimi, and got an early leg up by way of a nod from chill-master Stephen King. A quick kick around IMDB ascribes some of the editing work to a young Joel Coen, half of the brotherly duo. And, like the demons plaguing its hero, Ash, the film’s unstoppable appeal refuses to die – planting its demon seed in two sequels, Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992), as well as in video games, comic books, a 2013 remake of the original film and a 2015 television series on Starz.
Evil Dead: The Musical is a Raimi-sanctioned work that debuted in Toronto in 2003, and represents a Frankenstein mash up of the original trilogy. Its score of contagiously giddy, full-tilt numbers was clearly created to wake the dead — or at least jumpstart a flagging sense of humor. At Threshold, a faux-rustic set is punctuated by a dorky talking moose head and a cellar door that is forever opening and slamming shut as demons come and go. Here, the characters talk smack, fall prey to otherworldly possession and continuously have a go at one another. At first, I was a little taken aback by repeated insults in the vein of “you stupid bitch.” However, I soon enough realized that, like any horror film that respects the genre’s code, the character wielding those offenses was going to pay dearly for said transgressions.
The upshot is as follows: The main character is Ash (Cameron Christensen), the housewares employee at S-Mart responsible for bringing together his sister Cheryl (Kelly McDavid), girlfriend Linda (Shelly Goughnour), best buddy Scott (Jonathan Ford) and Scott’s latest conquest Shelly (Bess Lawson). However, when they find and play a tape of incantations, one by one the friends become possessed, and thereby hell-bent to seal the fate of their fellow cabin mates. To fight for his survival, Ash partakes in some pretty gnarly deeds, largely trained at his former loved ones — and at times even himself.
Propelling the increasingly antic, crazed display of comic slaughter — complete with laughably ersatz entrails and scenes of dismemberment — is an impressive onslaught of musical numbers that power along with mirth and mayhem. Admittedly, at times I found the spoken exchanges a bit stilted, but the score repeatedly resuscitated the pause in forward motion. I can understand the actors’ needing to catch their breath. On that note: Special props go to Christensen, who as Ash carries much of the show. He manages to be curiously appealing even when savaging his nearest and dearest — and does so with what seem to be relentless reserves of personal stamina.
A song like “Housewares Employee” delivers in both music and hysterical lyrics — and Christensen and Goughnour nail it. As the handyman Jake, James Ketelaar gets a comedic star turn with “Good Old Reliable Jake.” Lawson, in her additional role as cabin owner Annie, similarly kills it with “All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons.” And the entire ensemble surges onward through their last breath, always entertaining and never waning through a rapid succession of company numbers like “Do the Necronomicon” and “We Will Never Die.”
As seriously as I take theater, it can be terribly liberating to be given such clear marching orders to annihilate any mandate to mull, parse, or ruminate. Instead, Evil Dead: The Musical demands — and commands — that you allow yourself to let go and laugh at every goofy, spoofy, ridiculous, occasionally clumsy moment. It may just have unleashed a demonic desire in me to do so again sooner than later. As Halloween this way comes, this larger-than-death, skull-splitting rendition of a filmic horror great is just the screech-worthy, chainsaw-charged way to rock your horror.
Evil Dead runs Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., through Oct. 29. Get your tickets here.