The poster for Kalani Whitford’s production of “Evil Dead- The Musical” at the ProArts Theater sports a dashing hero with a chainsaw for a hand, standing next to a screaming blonde, as a pool of blood ascends from above. To say the least (and I mean this as the highest praise), Whitford’s production matches and surpasses the lurid thrills promised by the promo.
The plot -a group of attractive and staggeringly dumb young adults journey into the woods for time alone in a deserted cabin. Led by the headstrong Ash (played by Jacob Pecaut), his nerdy sister Cheryl (played by Patty Lee), the intellectually challenged Shelly (played by Lia Krieg De Souza), inhibitionless horndog Scott (played by William Nill) and the inquisitive Linda (played by Felicia Chernicki-Wulf), their party is quickly crashed by demons who possess and butcher them (remember folks, this is a musical comedy). Later, Annie (played by Laura Cole), the daughter of the cabin’s owner and Ed (played by Mikel Gosney), her long-suffering boyfriend, enter the story, as does a country bumpkin named Jake (played by Derek Nakagawa). There are decapitations, chainsaw mutilations, shotgun murders, savage beatings and some truly painful, horrifying puns. Set to a catchy song score by Geroge Reinblatt and presented with a knowingly tongue in cheek attitude, its plays like a satanic “Grease.”
As advertised, fake blood is sprayed all over the audience, with even those outside of the “splash zone” more than likely to, at the very least, get hit by gobs of splatter (I was in a section “adjacent” to the seats with audiences adorned in plastic and I still went home with clothes drenched in stickiness). Has there ever been a better theater experience for this time of year?
The cast throw themselves into the material (sometimes literally) and create ideal physical and tonal matches for their roles. Pecaut is an ideal Ash, which is far from an easy accomplishment- his performance acknowledges and matches the insane swagger brought to the role by iconic B-movie god Bruce Campbell (who, along with “Evil Dead” film director Sam Raimi, get funny shout outs). Of all the demanding, energy-draining work coming from these actors, Pecaut’s performance appears to be the most challenging, in that he must maintain a character with a specifically daft state of mind and also sustain the pulse of the show’s consistently wacky sense of humor.
De Souza takes her role as far as it possibly could go, then manages to go even further- keep an eye on her inventive and very funny character choices in the establishing scenes. Lee is a joy at evoking two very different characters, Chernicki-Wulf is delightful and makes some inspired choices (her duet with Pecaut is a major first act highlight) and Nil, a riot, nails his take on a definitively stupid alpha male. Cole is terrific as a prototypical horror movie heroine and Gosney’s performance is rich with surprises and crack comic timing. The biggest scene stealer is a hilarious Derek Nakagawa, whose initial solo number is the hardest I’ve laughed since “Avenue Q.” Nakagawa’s take on a rustic simpleton offers dozens of laugh out loud moments. The cast is so dialed in to their archetypes and the satirical potential of their roles, it’s wise to observe their choices even when they are not the focus of the scene. Whitford encourages great work from his actors and helms a theatrically demanding show that displays great collaborations from performers on stage and off.
Worthy of special mention is Don Carlson’s pitch-perfect narration and vocal performance, Caro Walker fantastic sets (they uncannily resemble the look of the film and offer all sorts of trap door theatrics), the puppets by Stephie Garrett and W. Pongsai Craft (I love that moose!), a great prop car from Todd VanAmberg, the fine music accompaniment from Marti Kluth and Richard Vetterli and the wild array of special effects, props and gags provided by Jim Oxborrow and Daniel Vicars. “Evil Dead- The Musical” is joyfully brash, unapologetically lowbrow and a ripe send-up of the teen slasher genre but it’s also a great achievement in immersing the audience into its gonzo vision. You’ll have a blast and will go home with the blood stains to prove it.
We’re dealing with a new variant on musical theater, comparable to the pulpy brilliance of “Little Shop of Horrors” and anything-goes craziness of the legendary “Carrie: The Musical.” This production serves as yet another totem that proclaims the versatility and creative dexterity of the ProArts Theater. Indeed, “Evil Dead- The Musical” is another fiendish, you-had-to-be-there comic spectacle in the vein of their recent “Avenue Q” smash and performed in the same wonderful space that housed boundary pusher “The House of Yes,” and comparably restrained tour de forces as “Sleuth” and “The Cemetery Club.” This is theater as a fearless, confident and adventurous expression of creative performance. If the ProArts once struggled to maintain an identity, due to their tucked-away, best-kept-secret location, productions like Whitford’s and rest of the 2019 offerings will reverse that; they are setting the bar high for themselves and providing the kind of wide-ranging, thrillingly inventive and defiantly bold works that made Maui theater so rich in the 80’s and 90’s.
Finally, about the blood that splashes the audience: it’s a combo of carob and fructose syrup. It’s sweet, yummy and incredibly sticky stuff, with the latter quality being the biggest cause of concern. While the fake gore will most likely come out in the wash, it’s so gooey and gummy, I found clapping to be a challenge, as I kept having to pull my palms apart. A final suggestion- in addition to bringing trash bags and plastic wrap for protection (and handy-wipes for afterwards, though it all comes out with soap and water), do not wear any articles of clothing you hold dear. Come prepared and ready for a great time.
Evil Dead- The Musical is playing at the Proarts Theater in Kihei (within the Azeka Marketplace and next to Taco Bell) until Nov. 3rd. Tickets are available at proartsmaui.com and by calling 808-463-6550.