Chico Cabaret breaks from its Halloween tradition and replaces Rocky Horror Show with raucous and fun Evil Dead, The Musical
If a theater audience is willing to shell out an extra couple of bucks for the privilege of being drenched in blood, then the show must be really special.
For Chico Cabaret’s brand-new production of Evil Dead, The Musical, an extra two bucks gets you out of the general admission seats-for-squares and puts you in the two-row splatter zone up front, where during last week’s opening-night performance, a very entertained crew of rowdies enjoyed a blood-soaked evening of live comedy and slapstick horror.
Even for us squares in the back, the Cabaret’s latest was an absolute blast. The local theater known for raunchy fun outdid itself with an exhilarating night of wildness. For the previous seven years, the theater’s signature production each season had been that most notorious sexy/campy/gothic musical, The Rocky Horror Show. But after Cabaret founders and artistic directors Phil and Sue Ruttenburg saw a production of the musical adaptation of Sam Raimi’s comedy/horror-film franchise in New York, they decided it was time to do something different for its October show.
Gone are the fishnets (well, almost—there is one special cameo), and in their place are severed limbs and fountains of blood. Cobbling its story mostly from the lines of the first Evil Dead film and its sequel Evil Dead 2, the play follows five college-aged/horror-movie stereotypes to a cabin in the isolated woods wherein the playing of an audio recording of an ancient text unleashes an evil force. The forest outside becomes possessed by so-called Candarian demons, and one by one so do most of the characters who, after dying, then transform into zombie-like Deadites. Evil is everywhere, and thanks to an arsenal that includes a shotgun, an axe and a cleverly situated chainsaw, and the badass hero character of Ash (played by Jarrod Cordle), blood and fun are soon spraying forth.
It’s a goof on horror tropes, and directors Phil Ruttenburg and L. Renee Boyd have played up both the goof and the horror (and the raunchiness) with verve. They’ve kept the flow loose and appropriately ridiculous, and the actors have thrown themselves into it.
Orion Dresden is goofy fun as the “asshole jerkface” character, paying for his sexual harassment with evisceration, generously sharing his fluids with the front row. Marissa Christensen is great as Ash’s sister Cheryl, using her squeaky voice to awesome effect as she transforms from shivering wallflower to blood-lusty Deadite, singing “Look who’s evil now!” before being tossed into the basement. Cordle puts his own twist on the iconic Ash, playing him like an old-Hollywood leading man, with a deadpan monotone that serves the cornball one-liners well and is a fun contradiction to the sudden murderousness into which he’s thrust. And Kelsi Fossum-Trausch, who also choreographed the show, belts out her songs with an incredible voice as she plays Act I’s leading lady Linda and Act II’s replacement leading lady Annie.
Boyd’s set plays a role as well, in concert with her and husband Brent’s special effects. The possessed cabin is one of the main characters, and when it sprang to life like some kind of nightmarish Country Bear Jamboree, it knocked me out of my seat.
The band features musical director Loki Miller on guitar, plus bassist Jeffy B and drummer Billy DiBono, and they make the otherwise forgettable numbers fun with a rockin’ looseness and playful interaction with the actors. If you’re comparing, the tunes are nowhere near as memorable as the very original Rocky numbers, but the songwriters seem aware that they don’t have to be. This play is an exercise in camp, and even the tiresome musical technique of actors singing their lines is a target of the satire in the opening number: “We’re five college students on our way to an old abandoned cabin in the woods.” (Reminiscent of the South Park dudes’ tongue-in-cheek musical approach.)
They even take a stab at Rocky’s signature dance-along tune “The Time Warp” with “Do the Necronomicon,” with instructions to “Do the robot/ And the sprinkler/ And finish it off with our best Henry Winkler.”
There were a handful of bumps in the road on opening night—blood not squirting on cue, and some sound issues (vocals disappearing in the live-music mix, microphone glitches)—but the actors were energetic and aware enough, and the concept/comedy is broad enough, that the narrative flow was never hindered. This is worth pointing out because the experience is enhanced by a somewhat loose approach to the wildness. When blood is flying, live music is pumping and the audience is lubed up and interacting with such a raunchy and irreverent production, tidiness and constraint are the last things you want. This is one gloriously messy production, and I can’t wait to see it again. Although next time I’m wearing a rain coat and sitting in the front row.