ICCT’s ‘Evil Dead: The Musical’ is one hell of a bizarre, wonderful show

ICCT Presents: Evil Dead: The Musical

Johnson County Fairgrounds — through Nov. 3

‘Evil Dead: The Musical’ runs through Nov. 3. — Emily McKnight/ICCT

So I have a confession. It’s a doozy. Before this weekend I’d never seen ANY of the Evil Dead films. I know. I know. I thought I was going to see a zombie musical. I pitched it to my husband as a zombie musical. I said, “Hey, wanna come see a zombie musical with me?” He was all, “Of course I do.” And when we arrived he was like, “Babe, Evil Dead isn’t zombies.” I’m like, “It’s not?”

And then he laughed at me. The warm fond laughter of the superior elder, about to watch a sweet summer child experience something bizarre and wonderful.

Iowa City Community Theatre’s production of George Reinblatt’s Evil Dead: The Musical is both bizarre and wonderful — in spades.

After seeing it Friday night, I went home and watched all three original movies: Evil Dead, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. After this surprisingly swift marathon I have come to the undeniable conclusion that this musical was written as a sort of a love letter to the trilogy. The almost maniacal campiness of Army of Darkness is used to stitch together the plots of all three films into one hilariously self-aware satire.

On opening night, the vibe in the packed house at ICCT felt more like the line outside a convention than your typical theater crowd. Costumed patrons and the white-shirted audience members in the “splash zone” lent an electric energy that was palpable.

The director (William Asmus) chose to have characters engaged in stylized movement in the house as the audience was seated — the whole time. For the most part the interactivity of a haunted tree reaching out toward you then veering away was super cool. But the lights were a bit too bright while this was happening so it was easy to see when they inevitably broke character. (Though it could be argued that this, too, was a choice, designed to underscore the convention this show enjoys of breaking the fourth wall.)

The costume and stage design (Karlē Jean Meyers and Rich LeMay, respectively) were amazing. The evil trees looked like the illegitimate offspring of Game of Thrones’ Children of the Forest and the Ents from Lord of the Rings. The juxtaposition of the floor scenes in the woods and cabin scenes on the main stage allowed the players to utilize multiple levels simultaneously and turned the theater into a sort of convertible, both thrust and proscenium.

‘Evil Dead: The Musical’ runs through Nov. 3. — Emily McKnight/ICCT

This worked extremely well to house both sets and gave the performers a lot of space to play in. Which was good because these fools apparently have a ton of energy to burn and boundless enthusiasm for the material.

Rob Merritt seems born to play Ash. He oozes phony “good guy” charm from the first song. But the second things begin to go wrong he is suddenly ready for action, ready to kill and ready to hit on every honey he sees. This macho stereotype is the heart of the Evil Dead series and Merritt absolutely slays it.

Hannah Green rocks as Ash’s sister Cheryl, too. She belts out some notes that had this alto feeling equally impressed and jealous. She captures both the whiny kid sister and the lone voice of reason magnificently, and once she goes evil her utter glee at delivering awful puns is truly funny. Green’s commitment to the bits levels up every moment she’s a part of.

There were a lot of other great performances as well. Mia Huxley has “douche frat bro” down to a wicked science, and Scotty and Ash’s tango during “What the Fuck Was That?” was hysterical. Isaac Helgens was absolutely perfect as Good Old Reliable Jake. His comedic timing was pristine, the aw-shucks accent never faltered and his “Ode to an Accidental Stabbing” left mirthful tear tracks running down my cheeks. Linda and Annie (Simmy Wood and Beth Nelson) were both well cast and gave very strong performances all around. The ensemble had some standout cameos and everyone was obviously there to play.

‘Evil Dead: The Musical’ runs through Nov. 3. — Emily McKnight/ICCT

So here comes the big but.

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But: I struggled to hear a lot of the music. The band sounded good, but muffled, and the singers’ voices all but cut out every time they turned their faces away from me.

Jessica Palmer & the Demons played from back stage right and I was sitting front stage left. That places a full stage, boxed in by cabin walls, squarely between myself and the band. I presume this was done to make the singers more audible over the instruments but I still lost entire verses to choreography and the inherent volume of drums and electric guitars. The space is not super acoustic and the singers aren’t fitted with microphones.

While we’re talking beefs, I felt there was some inconsistency in the application of the camp horror concept that I think I can pinpoint to the juxtaposition of choreography and props set against the music and the overall aesthetic.

This show pulls from all kinds of musical theater traditions, but it is, at the end of the day, a rock musical. The choreography, by Taylor Gomez, felt very old school musical theater — like Pippin, or Godspell, or Company — whereas the band for this show was definitely playing rock music, a la Rent, or Jesus Christ Superstar, or The Rocky Horror Show.

‘Evil Dead: The Musical’ runs through Nov. 3. — Emily McKnight/ICCT

The props, by Stephen Polchert, were very campy horror: The comically small toy shotgun as Ash’s “boom stick” and a plastic chain saw accompanied by an inconsistent sound effect got laughs, and people definitely liked them. But set against the gorgeous costumes, deeply intricate set and wildly awesome animatronic animals, they stood out as a touch too much for me.

All of the elements of these things were well done in their own right, but didn’t feel cohesive together. (Although, again, the same could be said of the films, where each pokes more fun at itself as they go on.)

Overall this show was a blast. I’d go again in a heartbeat. This is an experience, and it was a great time. If you enjoy camp horror and musical theater, go enjoy the fruits of ICCT’s labor: It was very obviously a labor of love.