All Things Entertaining and Cultural
As two pairs of companions behave flagrantly in nearby bedrooms, a young woman sits alone reading in the main den of a mountain cabin so isolated you have to park your car near a footbridge and hike a distance through the woods to get to it. Suddenly she hears a noise, a siren call that says, “Join us.” First she turns to the room where the others are, then to the audience at the Prince Music Theater and says something like, “I know. I’ll go outside a find out where that noise is coming from all by myself.”
Unfortunately, the woman’s fatal utterings, recognizable as possible last words even by folks indifferent to the horror genre, are the first and only instances of satire or parody that occur in “Evil Dead: The Musical,” the ineptly written and more ineptly directed claptrap that has the dubious distinction of inaugurating a new era in the Prince’s history. (Thank goodness diva ultra Barbara Cook is warbling upstairs at the Prince’s Morgan’s Café to take some taint from “Evil Dead’s” poisonous presence.)
“Evil Dead: The Musical,” as far as can be gleaned from the random mayhem that purports to be a rehearsed show, is meant to be a comic send-up of the 1981 Sam Raimi cult classic that has the same title and basic plot.
Now, let’s look at the basic elements of the horror genre, even horror films that are meant to provide a few yucks among the screams and ‘ewwws’ or to serve as a send-up of standard slasher movie cliches.
Horror films must set a mood, as must horror plays, even horror musicals. A character can’t just say it’s a dark and stormy night. The director must create an atmosphere that both lulls unsuspecting characters to a false security and sets up the carnage the audience knows is coming.
Main characters must be real to us, so we’ll care about them. Sure, many a horror movie kills off a few sacrificial lambs or annoying characters before threatening the leads — I was relieved when the irritating Griffin Dunne met his death early in “An American Werewolf in London” — but the audience has to genuinely fear for the safety of a favored character and want that character to avoid or fend off the inevitable.
Even in a parody, where laughs may be as important as gasps, some semblance of reality that creates murky menace or disarming stillness must prevail. Even a character that makes herself ridiculous or heralds her appointment with possible doom has to make the audience anxious about her well-being and eager to root for her to return to the cabin alive and unharmed.
In “Evil Dead: The Musical,” you root for the marauders, the released spirits that threaten the nuclear characters because the sooner those characters are really, truly dead, you can escape the real horror of the occasion, having to watch the play.
Listing the production’s transgressions would require a Tolstoy-length tome. Maybe three moments, other than the signal line I quoted at this review’s beginning, provide any thought, let alone wit or purpose, that might be construed as having any quality. Christopher Bond, one of “Evil Dead’s” composers, directed the piece, and one wonders if he bothered to read the book and lyrics by George Reinblatt or took into account the music by three other tunesmiths before he set about his work. Bond’s idea of humor seems to be acting dopey or peculiar. Everything in “Evil Dead” is so overtly and literally done, it has no nuance let alone the kind of theatrical sleight of hand that invites an audience into a play. Even when he comes up with a clever staging idea, Bond sabotages himself by presenting it too blatantly or to no palpable dramatic effect.
The man can’t even manage props. When one character severs his hand, it’s wrapped in the next scene so you can see his fingers making a fist. No one thought of the reality or true horror of seeing the bandage wrapped smoothly as if there was a stump beneath it.
I know this cavil sounds picky, but it is one among many examples of cloddish carelessness in a production that is so sloppy and slapdash, it looks more like an impropmtu college skit cooked up by some students to amuse their friends than a polished production that belongs in a professional theater.
The Prince doesn’t help Bond by seeming to be flummoxed by its own sound system. Sometimes you can’t hear actors because their mike isn’t turned on when they first speak. Sometimes you can’t understand them because the mikes are too hot, and the overamplification muffles their words. It’s as if no one did a sound check or worked out mike cues. The sound is on the level of a rock concert. Foul! Actors are speaking dialogue here, and no matter how inane the level of language Reinblatt provides, you still want to hear it. Amateur night in Dixie looks like Olivier’s “Hamlet” next to this production.
Any promise of quality is gone within “Evil Dead’s” first minute. A lighting effect that precedes the opening curtain is good, and so is the construction of a car the young woman and her randy companions ride in as the lights go up on the musical’s action.
Then come sound problems that obliterate the lyrics. Then you hear the lyrics and begin to consider where you’d like to have coffee or dinner once it’s polite to leave the theater.
Bond’s production has no focus. “Evil Dead” sprawls aimlessly across the stage as characters spout banalities and clue the crowd about which one is the likely hero, which the heroine, which the snarky sex-obsessed friend, which the hussy who might satisfy him, and which is the dork. Banalities might work to set up the ordinariness that should reign at the beginning of a horror film, but Reinblatt’s dialogue is mostly the sex-obsessed character calling the dork names, and not with much variety or wit. The character is like Dunne’s in “Werewolf.” You long to be rid of him.
The actors, especially Ryan Ward, as Ash, the alleged hero, tend to overdo their lines or emphasize comic bits as if they had quotes around them or were written in cartoon balloons. Everything Ward does is tipped in advance, and while he carries off one deft sequence in which, under the influence of spirits, he uncontrollably attacks himself, most of his performance is so hammy, you’d think he channeled Porky Pig.
No one else is much better. The only actor I thought sustained a sequence and gave the audience a reason to both watch and listen to a musical number is Daniel Williston, as the native mountain dweller and self-proclaimed go-to guy, Jake. Kenton Blythe is also unobjectionable as the nerdy boyfriend of the religious scholar whose father owns the cabin in which the five vacationing friends are squatting.
“Evil Dead” has a plot, but it’s more of a context or suggestion than a guide to concentrated action.
After the five friends, the flagrant group and the reading woman, arrive at the cabin for their vacation, they find a book and a tape. The book, allegedly bound in human flesh and written in blood, is a Book of the Dead, and the tape tells of its discovery and power. In the Prince production, these details only set up the action. They don’t dictate it or keep it orderly. Bond takes no pains to make anything ominous or portentous, so the only thing the audience can watch for is how violent and gory he can make his staging. The Prince’s first six rows are covered in plastic, as are the floors leading to the auditorium, so the fake blood, copiously spouted, won’t stain. People in those first six rows are warned they are in a “splatter zone” and may be doused with stage blood. I noticed many, who may be cult followers of the show, wore white T-shirts that would show off the “blood” nicely.
Speed, rather than texture or build-up, seems to Bond’s aim. He also resorts to the annoying habit of thinking it’s sufficient to tell something to an audience instead of showing it to them. Even when a moment, for instance one in which a character is running for her life, could be intense or awash in peril, Bond undercuts it by lighting it brightly or establishing no sense of danger. He seems to put narrative efficiency ahead of suspense or tone. Nothing in the production is even remotely realistic or sincere. Reinblatt does not help with possible the worst collection of lyrics, shallow doggerel that passes for songs, since Will Holt was writing in the 1970s. To call Reinblatt’s words ‘drivel’ would be to elevate them to a standard they cannot meet. Except for Williston’s “Good Old Reliable Jake,” they don’t move action, they don’t express emotion, and they don’t impart anything useful. More often than not, they’re lame excuses to earn “Evil Dead” its descriptive subhead, “The Musical.” An early song that tells how the expected hero and heroine meet is verbally inert. Another , in which one of the characters reveals being rendered a zombie, a member of the living dead, is about as nerve-jangling as a jack-in-the-box and pretends to cleverness by packing all five questions words — why, when, how, etc. — into one song. Wow!
“Evil Dead” does not establish an auspicious beginning for the Prince’s resurrection after a few seasons of lying fallow. It is not clever enough to be a spoof in more than name. It doesn’t entertain enough to rate much regard.
The next show on the Prince’s roster is another send-up, “Potted Potter,” which uses J.A. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories as its source for parody. “Potted Potter” has a decent track record in New York and London, but then “Evil Dead” received positive attention in Toronto, a smart theater town. Let’s hope ‘Potter” sets a tone that shows the Prince to be a serious presenter of theater. Two shows scheduled for 2014 have greater potential, one being Peter Brook’s production of “The Suit” that earned acclaim last year in Brooklyn and elsewhere, the other being Mark Nadler’s well-conceived and classily performed, “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” a review of music from the Weimar Republic “and beyond,” that enjoyed several extensions at NYC’s York Theatre earlier this year. The Prince also restored its cabaret, Miss Cook opening a season that includes Patti LuPone, Steve Tyrell, and Karen Akers.
“Evil Dead: The Musical” may have sounded good on paper and, as I said, it found favor in Toronto, but its execution is wretched from a theatrical and technical point of view. I lost so much patience with its sloppiness and lack of potential, I left the show at intermission, my only consideration about remaining another second at the Prince being whether or not to sneak into Cook’s show, which I did not do.
“Evil Dead: The Musical” runs through Sunday, October 20 at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 7 and 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $65 to $25 and can be ordered by calling 215-893-1999 or going online to www.princemusictheater.org.