Evil Dead: The Musical” should be a disaster. Many people have tried to turn Gen X cultural artifacts into campy theater, and most have produced smug fiascos pretending to be comedy. This tuner — based on the trilogy of cult-fave, low-budget horror pics from “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi — even apes the formula of those failures: It has self-aware jokes, ironically earnest songs and a tacit assertion that the creators think their entire project is a goof. And yet it works. The show’s wit, gore and stage magic make it a ridiculous amount of fun.
Adapting the tale of a noble teenager who must butcher his friends after they’re possessed by demons, it’s clear that producers and creatives want to manufacture a cult hit of their own. There are weekend perfs at 11 p.m., and the theater’s first three rows are designated as a “splatter zone” where fake blood will hit the audience. While protective plastic ponchos are supplied, many splatter-zoners are deliberately wearing clothes that will show off the carnage.
Blatantly inviting such audience rituals instead of letting them occur organically is disingenuous. However, the production redeems itself by pushing its gimmicks so far they become surprising. There’s just so much blood getting sprayed across the crowd — gushing out of arm stumps, chest wounds and well-placed holes in the wall — that the giddy excess charms.
The script, too, succeeds by being oversized. Writer and lyricist George Reinblatt is less interested in plot than in mocking the conventions of horror films, and “Evil Dead” suits his purpose. The thin story can be summarized as follows: Students vacationing in rural cabin accidentally unleash demons from the Necronomicon, or “book of the dead.” Chaos ensues.
The “teens in cabin” idea is pretty stale, and a production like this obviously will make a joke about it. But Reinblatt more than pokes fun. He turns the trope into his opening number, letting five perky thesps sing a pop ditty called “Cabin in the Woods.”
That spirit boosts most of the show, particularly when Cheryl (Jenna Coker), sister to the heroic demon-slayer Ash (Ryan Ward), turns evil and gets trapped in the cabin’s cellar. She keeps popping up from a door in the floor to make hideous puns, but because the groaners never stop coming, the sheer volume makes them funny.
Sharp comic instincts aside, though, this is still Reinblatt’s first show, and he could benefit from editing. A handful of songs that seem included solely to give each cast member a solo are not on par with the rest of the numbers. (The worst pace-killer is “Good Old Reliable Jake,” which lets a local yokel steal focus from the kids getting slaughtered.) A swift pass from a dramaturg could turn an occasionally flat two hours into a muscular one-act.
The potential of the writing is made clear by the exceptional creative team. Co-directors Christopher Bond and Hinton Battle (who also choreographs) strike just the right tone of sincerity, so that the actors never tell us where the jokes are. Even in the broadest moments, the thesps don’t wink in our direction but just play the horror or horniness of their circumstances.
Set designer David Gallo creates a cabin that almost deserves top billing. With remarkable imagination, he supplies details like breakaway walls, “Rocky Horror” posters and a vicious beaver puppet that comes to life. Coupled with Cynthia Nordstrom’s costumes — which include walking trees — the set makes “Evil Dead: The Musical” a visual feast. Even when it’s drenched in blood, the production is lovely to behold.