Review: ‘Evil Dead The Musical’ at Red Branch Theatre Company

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Evil Dead: The Musical is ideal for those theatergoers who always found The Rocky Horror Show just too darned serious. No need to give this show a big hand — it already has one as a recurring character.

L to R: Ben Stoll, Angeleaza Anderson, and Peter Boyer. Photo by Bruce F Press Photography.

L to R: Ben Stoll, Angeleaza Anderson, and Peter Boyer. Photo by Bruce F Press Photography.

Red Branch Theatre Company has been gearing up for this all-stops-out bit of grand guignol ever since reviving Carrie: The Musical in its intimate playhouse a couple seasons back.

Of course, in that one the audience never risked getting splashed with stage blood. Here the considerate folks at Red Branch are making ponchos available for anyone in “the splatter zone.”

Although extra protection did not prove too necessary on opening night, October 7, who knows what bloodthirsty spirits might inhabit future performances?

Evil Dead is just another of your basic good vs. evil shows, though in this case it’s more like goofy vs. goofier. When these demonic forces get going, even an old stuffed moose head on the wall springs to life with eyes a-twirl and a speaking voice reminiscent of Bullwinkle!

Slapstick and over-the-top gore were championed by Sam Raimi’s 1983 original horror flick, of course, and they have been part of the movie franchise and cable series that continues to this day on Starz.

The 2006 off-Broadway stage version (first produced in Canada in 2003) features serviceable music by Frank Cipolla, Melissa Morris, and George Reinblatt. Reinblatt also provided the book and lyrics that hew somewhat close to the outlines of the first film.

Five college kids retreat to an isolated cabin in the woods for unsupervised R & R, inadvertently unleashing evil by reading from a 13th-century book of sorcery called the Necronomicon. (Who says that today’s kids don’t appreciate the classics?) After that, the question of who will become possessed and what body parts will fly next become the manager’s specials on the suspense menu.

Director-Choreographer Jenny Male has long been the local go-to gal when it comes to staging fights and other physical business on stage. That makes her an ideal choice for all the raucous, afterhours slapstick in store here. She also has chosen her singing cast of victims with an eye towards physical-comedy prowess.

Red Branch newbie Ben Stoll has the most demanding central role as Ash (short for Ashley), an overgrown stock boy at S-Mart who knows his way around shotguns and chainsaws. This is the role that gave Bruce Campbell a career, and Stoll shows some of the ol’ Campbell magic for rising to ever-higher levels of heroic nerd-damage. Plus, he sings well in wacky solo turns in numbers like “Housewares Employee” and “It’s Time.”

Danny Bertaux makes the perfect empty vessel for paranormal invaders as the hormone-addled Scott. He and Stoll had the audience roaring with their silly-putty tango on the duet “What the F#@! Was That?” Carson Elizabeth Gregory, who has one of the nicest singing voices in the cast, seems to relish each indignity that befalls her as Ash’s doomed girlfriend, Linda.

As Cheryl, the only one who starts out with a head on her shoulders worth saving, Sarah Goldstein becomes absolutely hysterical in both of its definitions. First, she is the one with enough sense to freak out over all the occult happenings going on around them. Then after becoming possessed herself, she is hysterical in the sense of provoking much laughter with devilish puns and serial wisecracks delivered from her basement prison.

Angeleaza Anderson is a hoot as Shelly before going all zombie on us, then returns as Annie, the Necronomicon expert who comes to rescue her daddy. She does a spirited job teaching the ghouls of the chorus the specialty dance-du-jour (“Do the Necronomicon”) for those who have never mastered the Time Warp. This is after Anderson nearly stops the show with the inspired doo-wop balladry of “All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons.”

Evil Dead: The Musical really has little use for subtle nuance. Some of the fun highlights are broad novelty songs delivered by throwaway characters like Peter Boyer as Jake (“Good Old Reliable Jake”) and Cole Watts as Ed (“Bit Part Demon”).

L to R: Danny Bertaux, Sarah Goldstein, and Ben Stoll. Photo by Bruce Press Photography.

L to R: Danny Bertaux, Sarah Goldstein, and Ben Stoll. Photo by Bruce Press Photography.

The live three-piece accompaniment by Music Director Aaron Broderick does not over-power the space with amplified instruments. It is all that is needed to underscore the singing and keep the blood gushing.  The vocal harmonies are often a delight, with only a few of the lyrics getting lost in the carnage.

The cabin interior set by Ryan Michael Haase is one of the best ever at Red Branch, cleverly solving some of the problems posed by providing a functioning basement and a very active forest. Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin again meets the challenges of “horror movie” effects with innumerable improbable light cues.

Costume Designer Andrew Malone and Props Designer Alison Anderson are always resourceful and sometimes witty, accomplishing a lot on a clearly limited budget.

This well-mounted area premiere is another memorable season highlight, but be aware that Red Branch has adopted a policy that divides shows into those that are “edgy and shocking” and those that are “family friendly.” Like Dogfight and Heathers: The Musical, this belongs firmly in the first category, with uninhibited allusions to sexual activity and rowdy teenage abandon.

Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Lynn Williams and Managing Director Tiffany Underwood Holmes announced their upcoming season before Friday’s performance. The “Mad About You” season tones down the violence and shock tactics. It opens with a new stage version of MadLibs, and includes Lysistrata Jones, The Bridges of Madison County, and a live musical version of DreamWorks’ Madagascar. Ponchos do not appear requisite.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

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Evil Dead: The Musical plays through October 29, 2016 at Red Branch Theatre Company performing at the Drama Learning Center – 9130-I Red Branch Road, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 997-9352, or purchase them online.

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