Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Evil Dead the Musical

Daniel Williston (photo by David Hou)

Deliciously Goofy Gore-soaked Fun
Toronto favourite still has its weak spots, but there’s no denying it’s a fun night out.
by Christian Baines

It seems pretty redundant to assess the strengths of Evil Dead’s writing as a musical now. The semi-original Canadian camp-fest has been touring with incredible success since 2003. If audience enthusiasm at the Randolph Theatre on Tuesday night is any indication, there’s still quite a bit to come. That’s not to give the show a free pass, but understand that at this stage of its life, Evil Dead is as much a raucous cult experience as it is a musical.

It belongs to that most difficult, yet persistent genre, the bloody B-grader – though if you’re going in expecting another Little Shop of Horrors, Bat Boy, or even Reefer Madness, it may be time to adjust your expectations. Evil Dead has a few well publicized tricks up its sleeve that these shows don’t, but its book and score don’t aim for anywhere near say, Bat Boy’s level of character development or sophisticated snark. The score doesn’t particularly grasp for originality and the lyrics contain as many forced moments as they do inspired ones. Henry Winkler? Yeah... even Ash (Ryan Ward) calls them out – in character – on that one.

But damn if the end result isn’t bloody good fun!

Despite its shortcomings, Evil Dead remains a (mostly) smart parody of the horror favourite, and it’s hard to not be at least a bit drawn by the promise of the show’s much touted ‘splatter zone’ (front three rows of the centre orchestra – though containment to this zone is certainly not guaranteed). The show rises to the occasion on both counts, thanks to a capable, enthusiastic cast led by Ward. Having originated the role of Ash, he attacks the part like he’s sharing top billing with Bugs Bunny, recalling much of what makes Evil Dead 2 in particular such a great cult experience. He also never tries to slavishly mimic Bruce Campbell, and his Ash is all the more believable for it.

Alison Smyth laps up the splashy role of Cheryl, Ash’s prudish kid-sister turned de facto leader of the demon horde (“and she’s the one you let live?”) providing an energetic, wise-cracking foil to Ward’s antics. Kenton Blythe’s part is so thankless he gets an entire number to complain about it, yet he manages to turn one of Act 2’s numerous ‘filler’ numbers (more on that in a bit) into a showstopper. So say what you will about the writing in Evil Dead. Nobody can accuse the cast of not selling the hell out of this thing.

The show’s narrative troubles hit around the beginning of its second act. As the action based on the first film wraps up, it starts to feel as though writer George Reinblatt isn’t really sure how to keep it going. Instead, he settles for self-referential gags. One key quality to the best work in this genre – Bat Boy, Little Shop, Re-Animator (also now, I kid you not, a musical), and the Evil Dead films – is that their characters are never in on the joke. Evil Dead the Musical stays this course throughout its first act – a few well-placed inside gags for fans land perfectly – but simply tries too hard to be hip and self-aware (ala Spamalot) in its second. 

Of course, all this is just stalling for time until the finale, which is a blood-soaked hoot. On opening night, it was clear some audience members were having a ball, delighting in the gory baptism. Others got a little more than they bargained for, so if you are considering seats in the splatter zone, please, for the sake of your clothes, do not assume the producers are exaggerating the carnage to boost sales. 

One slight caveat… again! How many times do we have to have this conversation about the Randolph? Too often, actors’ voices are buried under the score, and it comes at the expense of some of Reinblatt’s funniest lines. 

Still, assuming subsequent performances can get these imbalances under control, Evil Dead is a musical night out unlike any other you’ll probably see. What the jokes lack in consistency, they make up for in delivery, and I defy anyone not to leave the Randolph Theatre with a big, gore-soaked grin on their face.

Evil Dead the Musical plays until December 22 at the Randolph Theatre.

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