Arts & Culture » Visual Arts

Book of the dead

Gonzo goriness marks Theatre Downtown staging of the iconic horror-comedy



Evil Dead: The Musical

Theatre Downtown
through July 2

Deadites. Boomstick. The Necronomicon. If these words hold talismanic meaning for you, then you probably don't need me to alert you to Theatre Downtown's new production of Evil Dead: The Musical. Heck, you may have been camping out on Orange Avenue ever since the Orlando premiere of the off-Broadway hit was announced: The cult-classic horror-comedy films - and their beloved star, Bruce Campbell - can inspire that kind of obsessive devotion.

If, on the other hand, you're among the unaware, here's Evil Dead in a shotgun shell: It's the tale of callow college-age Ash (Kevin Zepf) and his horndog buddy Scott (Adam DelMedico), who take their girlfriends Linda (Shannon Bilo-Zepf) and Shelly (Genna Paige Kango) and Ash's "sistah" Cheryl (Leontyne Carter) along for a vacation weekend in an abandoned cabin in the woods. They find an ancient evil book, demons arrive, taxidermy starts talking and everyone loses a limb or two. Pretty standard stuff, really.

This isn't exactly Shakespeare. The book by George Reinblatt basically stitches together plot points from the first two films by writer-director Sam Raimi with a few bits from the third movie, Army of Darkness. It's the kind of show where the song titles ("What the Fuck Was That?," "All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons," "Blew That Bitch Away") are better than the lyrics and melodies themselves. But as an aficionado of the original movies, I immensely enjoyed the original New York production at New Word Stages, reveling in its gonzo goriness and pitch-black humor.

In order to re-create that success, a theater presenting Evil Dead: The Musical needs two things. The first: top-notch technicians capable of executing the script's special effects. Theatre Downtown's designers deliver one of the best-looking shows ever seen on their small stage; technical director Tim DeBaun's team of set designer Lilly Hastings, lighting designer Felicia Hall and costume designer Grayson Tate have worked wonders way beyond their budget. Special note should be made of Dorothy Massey's special make-up effects, which must use buckets of bogus blood. But be warned: On opening night the splatter ended up everywhere in house left except the designated splash zone.

The second thing is to strike the proper tone, which must balance genuine scares with satirical slapstick. Director Steve MacKinnon, who has become Theatre Downtown's go-to musical guy, has a signature campy style that worked well with shows like Altar Boyz and The Wiz. But he misses the mark with Evil Dead by approaching it simply as puerile parody, with everything played as broadly as possible to a broken fourth wall. In the leading role, Kevin Zepf has a suitably strong voice and square jaw, but he bypasses his character's arc from cowardly everyman to cocky ass-kicker by uttering every line with the same arched eyebrow and ironic affect, and his delivery of Ash's signature quips feels clunky. The rest of the talented cast labors mightily to fill every beat with goofy gags, dragging the pace to a crawl as they pause for laughs that aren't there. Finally, the audio mix made every word a muddy mess, while musical director Spencer Crosswell's five-piece band lacks real rock & roll bite.

Die-hard Deadites probably won't be dissuaded from attending this show, but will likely be left with a desire to rewatch the original films as an antidote. Audience members not already in the cult may wish to chainsaw their own arms off before the second act is over.

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