The first time I ever experienced true terror that wasn’t generated by my own imagination and confabulation, I was watching the original Evil Dead film while my parents were across the street at a dinner party. While unnerving, the film didn’t reach it’s true paralyzing climax until a scene of card-playing, in which the recently-tree-ravaged sister violently reveals the full extent of her ghoulish possession by the vengeful tree spirits. Predicting all the cards in a card game, she turns to expose herself in all her monstrosity and begins the absurd, claustrophobic terror that runs rampant throughout the rest of the film. It’s a simple gag, but unspeakably horrifying. And I thought no adaptation could do the original justice.
The musical version of the Evil Dead trilogy—The Evil Dead, The Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness—put on by Pittsburgh Musical Theatre’s after-hours series, managed to circumvent many of the misgivings and surpass most of the expectations I held seating myself at the late night, palpably rowdy (an enthusiastically buzzed, very respectful rowdy). Even though horror-inspired musicals like Carrie the Musical and the Silence of the Lambs musical have won me over, there is a certain over-the-top outrageousness inherent to the story and theatrics of Evil Dead that made a musical adaptation seem unlikely to adequately capture the extreme camp of the film.
The opening moments are exuberantly but unsurprisingly raucous and enjoyable, introducing us to our cast of doomed youths as they head to the doomed cabin referenced in the relentlessly peppy “Cabin in the Woods,” while simultaneously combining elements from the Evil Dead sequels that explore the mythos and history of the curse. While the raw talents of the cast members are evident throughout the opening numbers—particularly B.A. Goodnack as the Evil Dead series’ infamous, unwitting protagonist Ash (who Goodnack superbly plays with the spot-on mixture of rogue charm and hapless buffoonery) and Kait Marie Descutner as Ash’s starry-eyed supermart romance interest Linda—the musical truly finds its footing with the outlandishly sinister number “Look Who’s Evil Now,” performed by the outstanding Sandy Zwier as Ash’s sister Cheryl. “Look Who’s Evil Now” is a recreation of the moment in the film which brought me such relentless terror as a child, and manages to satire it flawlessly and without being an affront to horror nerds. In fact, the audience was replete with the most wonderfully archetypal horror nerds one would anticipate if one is familiar with the cult of Evil Dead, and the mood throughout the musical was beyond elated (particularly those audience members who were seated in the first 2-3 rows—and a special nod should be given to the special effects and production management for pulling off certain theatrics).
The musical as an entire venture is seamlessly produced and coordinated, which is particularly important given the elaborate stunts, gags, and carnage that transpire on stage. Evil Dead manages to effortlessly weave the stories and characters of different Evil Dead universes into one cohesive—if not absolutely ludicrous—narrative, and allows peculiar characters like Scott (marvelously tacky Adam Fladd, whose shining moment is disembowelingly fun) and Jake (delightful Joe York) to shine amongst the more prominent characters. The musical manages to also deal as sensitively as it can with the major, somewhat problematic plot point of the first film—the cursed trees that sexually violate Cheryl—though I question what the benefit would have been had this component of the story been. And to Sandy Zwier’s tremendous credit, her take on Cheryl—who suffers from the beleaguered trope of the awkward, sex-deprived sister in the film—is my second favorite after the 2013 reboot’s Mia (Jane Levy). Evil Dead: The Musical was unequivocally the most fun I’ve had at the theatre in quite some time, and you can saw my hand off if I’m lying.
Evil Dead: The Musical runs at Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s new space in the West End through February 10. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photos by Melissa Wallace