Short of celebrating pedophilia or infanticide, there's little subject matter or source material off limits for a musical. Whether inspired by children's TV shows (Avenue Q), Old West folklore (Cannibal! The Musical), propaganda films (Reefer Madness) or the late, great Weekly World News (Batboy: The Musical), the most interesting and edgy contemporary American musicals are a far cry from the well-honed, sentimental, bombastic hokum that those who love musical theater still adore—but nauseate the rest of us.
But it's doubtful any musical rises to the WTF level of Evil Dead: The Musical. An homage to and affectionate parody of the three Sam Raimi films that rank among the most influential movies of the late 20th century (directors from the Coen Brothers to Peter Jackson have credited the first Evil Dead as huge inspiration, and it also helped popularize the so-called shaky cam), the show is filled with gore, blood, rapist trees and ancient demonic spirits, and its creators somehow felt adapting that story into a musical made sense.
And they were right. Since opening in a small Toronto bar in 2003, it has been produced in more than 200 cities across America, Japan, Spain and South Korea. Rather than trying to match the suspense and gritty, if completely overwrought, violence of the films, the five creators opted for camp and kitsch, creating a show that magnifies (or drives into the ground) Raimi's blending of comedy and horror.
"I think the first film [in 1981] was meant to be serious, but after realizing over the years that it had a campy, cult following," Raimi and creators pushed their subsequent films, in 1987 and 1992, more in that direction, says Stephen Hulsey, who is directing the OC premiere of the Maverick Theater's production of the musical, which opened last weekend. "And the musical pays tribute and homage to that."
But don't think the buckets of blood associated with the films are nixed in the musical. As with most theaters that have mounted the show, the Maverick has dubbed its 10-seat front row a "splatter zone," in which patrons can pay $10 extra to sit.
"Blood is a huge part of the huge part of the stage play," Maverick artistic director Brian Newell says. "There isn't a whole lot of blood in the first act, but in the second act, it gets crazy. There are gun shots and people getting cut open and blood squirting all over the place."
Dealing with and, more important, cleaning up the blood wasn't something Newell felt comfortable doing on his 70-seat cabaret stage, where most Maverick musicals are produced. But after Hulsey kept hitting him up to do the show, Newell realized that it might be a good fit for his smaller stage, on which he produces Night of the Living Dead every Halloween.
While "audiences won't be doused in blood," Newell says the production uses about 2 gallons of blood, and those in the splatter zone won't be disappointed. However, director Hulsey says, the blood factor can also overshadow the musical's story, something he is attempting to correct.
"I saw it in Las Vegas, and though it wasn't the strongest production, I saw its potential," says Hulsey, who studied piano performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. "The story seemed to be just an excuse to get to the next blood-splatter moment, but there wasn't too much storytelling going on. There's a fine line between the actors telling the story honestly by being a little campy [and] it just getting to be slapstick, and that's something that I think makes our show a little different."
That's not to imply that the story—or the musical—is anything other than raucous entertainment. "It honestly really is just mindless entertainment," says Hulsey, who also conducts the four-piece band on piano. "It's a mixture of potty and frat-boy humor, and not meant to make you think—just to be entertained for about an hour and 20 minutes."
"This is a kitschy, off-the wall kind of show that you don't normally see at bigger theaters," adds Newell. "So, in that respect, it's definitely a Maverick kind of show."
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Always with an eye on the bottom line, Newell says that shows like this one succeed in doing something that is a constant challenge to every theater across the country. "When we do shows like Cannibal! the Musical or The Toxic Avenger, we find that we bring in newer audiences every time," he says. "And that's ultimately what I've tried to do with the Maverick: to get new audiences and new theater-goers to come out."
Evil Dead: The Musical at the Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-7070; www.mavericktheater.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through Aug. 19. $25; students, $15; splatter-zone seats, $35.