Say you’re a horny teenager. You’re going off with some buddies to a cabin deep in the woods to help your friend’s sister go cold turkey from the monkey on her back (like you do), when … what the fuck?! You find a book, written in blood and with a cover made of human skin entitled, Naturom Demonto. Naturally, being a horny teenager with not enough blood going to the brain part of your body, you settle in for a nice summer read as the girl in the next room convulses and vomits. Okay, that’s fair. It’s a catchy title, and the skin feels kind of gnarly, and you don’t speak or read Latin or whatever, so you can’t possibly know it translates to Book of the Dead and will unleash Hell on earth!
Does this premise sound familiar? This is the basic setup for the original 1981 horror film/cult classic/cornerstone of modern horror films, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. The film has borne multiple sequels and a recent cinematic remake and has changed the way we construct horror films forever. Many a lonely 40-year-old virgin has watched these films so often he has them memorized and screams “BRUCE CAMPBELL” at the point of climax … alone in his mom’s basement. The film is all these things: trendsetter, scarefest, impending nerdgasm … and it also sired a nifty off-off-off Broadway musical entitled Evil Dead: The Musical. Urbana’s Celebration Company at the Station Theatre will present this bloody business as its second summer offering, opening Thursday, June 26. I took a few moments to sit down with director Mikel Matthews and a few of his cast members via email to discuss why this musical is so goddamn cool and let them try to convince you to see their wacky and wickedly tongue-in-cheek offering.
[Editor’s note: After this preview article was written, the Evil Dead team lost their costumer in their final week of rehearsals. Thom Schnarre, a veteran costumer at Parkland College and the Station, was contacted and agreed to fill in on short notice. —MG]
Mikel Matthews is a veteran director in the Champaign-Urbana area, having directed multiple productions for the Station (The Full Monty, Rent, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, Zombie Prom, and Circle Mirror Transformation) and CUTC (The Producers). His direction is characterized by a youthful energy and a punk rock edge that makes each show a bit of a tuneful flip of the middle finger. He likes his shows dark and twisty with a healthy dash of belly laughs, and Evil Dead: The Musical seems to be the musical of his dreams. Matthews has been lobbying for the Station to mount this musical for several years and has finally gotten his wish.
Smile Politely: First off, Mikel, why should audiences flock to see Evil Dead: The Musical?
Mikel Matthews: Mainly because it is a show I would really want to see, even if I weren’t directing it. The great thing about Evil Dead (among several great things) is that you don’t have to be a fan of the movies to get it. It’s funny, high energy, and interactive in a “splatter-some-of-the-audience-with-blood” kind of way. It’s not going to be like any other theatre you’re going to see this year.
SP: What attracted you to this property? How long have you wanted to direct it?
Matthews: This was probably the fourth time I submitted Evil Dead for consideration for the Station Theatre. I’m a big fan of the films, and I thought the music for the show was hysterical. When I sat down to read it, I knew that this show would be a huge amount of fun to see and that it wasn’t like anything I’ve seen before … outside of a Gwar concert.
SP: You direct both at the high school level and at the Station. What is unique about each experience and what makes Evil Dead a ‘Station-type project’?
Matthews: Directing at the high school is a unique challenge. My tastes in shows tend to run towards the dark and the mature. There are a lot of really bad plays out there that are done constantly at schools, mostly for fear of one person flipping out over content that’s much milder than what you’ll find on any random student’s iPod. Parents routinely allow their children to watch shows and movies beyond anything I’d ever try to do at the school. Finding a show that’s interesting, has depth, and doesn’t insult the intelligence of the students and myself is always rough. The kids very much appreciate a good script, though.
I got involved at the Station because they consistently did the best shows in town. They have a bar that you have to meet or you don’t continue working there. You deal with almost no one there who doesn’t care about putting on the best show possible, which makes for an environment to work in that I dearly love. I’ve never had a bullshit argument here.
The only thing that makes Evil Dead a rough fit for the Station Theatre is the size of the space. I have to limit where I can have the “splatter zone” more than I would in another theatre. Beyond that, it’s the perfect space. The audience and the company love new experiences and varying the kinds of shows they see. The intimacy of the theatre gets everyone right up next to it, and they’ll get to see the reaction of the people who are getting sprayed with blood and be much more a part of that than if they were in a huge theatre.
And we’ll have tarps and plastic to help the people in the splash zone to not get blood on them … assuming they don’t want it on them.
SP: What is the biggest challenge in mounting Evil Dead?
Matthews: The actors we’ve assembled are all fantastic and the script is so much fun that I don’t have to do all that much work with them, really. The technical aspects of the show — chainsaw hand that squirts blood, hand with a knife that squirts blood, other things that squirt blood — are numerous and difficult. I’ve got good people working on them, however.
SP: I know you try not to study previous stage versions of a show you’re directing. For this project, how much of an influence are the films on your production and what can audience members who are fans of the films expect from this version?
Matthews: Evil Dead: The Musical takes its story from Evil Dead II, mostly, and the tone of Army of Darkness. It’s important to capture the tone of the films and, in particular, the way Bruce Campbell approaches [lead character] Ash. I was in the Wizard of Oz when I was young and felt trapped in the role of the Cowardly Lion [because of the screen portrayal]. Michael Steen, who plays Ash, has a lot more freedom than I did, but still has to channel his inner Bruce Campbell. And, honestly, who could be better for channeling their inner Bruce Campbell?
No production truly comes to life on the page until an actor joins the process and commits fully to it. Any director with a good script and a vision who has waited in a dark theatre for auditioners who never show up knows the importance of assembling a cast of quality actors. The cast of Evil Dead: The Musical contains some of the youthful hotshots on today’s Champaign-Urbana theatre scene. Michael Steen plays Ash, the Bruce Campbell role in the film. Steen is a veteran C-U actor, with roles from all local venues including Parkland (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Lend Me a Tenor, Bat Boy, and Once Upon a Mattress), CUTC (Avenue Q), and the Station (Rent, She Loves Me, and Trailer Park: The Muscial).
Ellen Fred is a U of I undergrad and has appeared in shows for CUTC (Legally Blonde), the Station (Hairspray), Parkland (Dead Man’s Cell Phone), the Armory Free Theatre (The Wild Party) and Krannert Center (Dracula and Spring Awakening).
Christopher Terrell Brown, also an undergrad in the U of I theatre program, has appeared in productions at the Station (Hairspray and Eurydice) and Krannert Center (Dracula and Spring Awakening).
Madeline Knight-Dixon (a contributor to Smile Politely, full disclosure) has appeared in productions for the Station (Company), CUTC (Avenue Q and Sweet Charity), and the Armory Free Theatre (The Wild Party).
Laura Anne Welle is another local talent who made a big splash as a Living Dead Doll come to life in the Station’s spring production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. She is also gaining notice in the locally produced film Scary Normal and appeared in CUTC’s The Producers. This talented tribe of actors took some time out of their hectic schedules to share their thoughts on why you need to come see their freakin’ awesome show.
SP: A lot of musical theatre peeps gravitate to well-known and much-produced works. Why are you excited to appear in a more underground “cult” musical?
Michael Steen: Well-known shows are all well and good, but if it’s produced with any frequency, chances are I’ve already done it. Twice. Weird little musicals like this are such a rare treat. I tend to be a fan of cult films, horror, and geekiness in general. Evil Dead is right up that alley.
Ellen Fred: As an aspiring professional actor, I have to admit that I am far more prone to audition for the popular and adored pieces. However, as an Urbana High School alum, I would be lying if I said I did not have experience in performing more unique/underground type shows.
Gregory Chew, the former director at UHS, never once repeated a show in the many years he taught there. You can imagine that after some time one would have to do some digging to find new pieces. I have found that when performing shows such as Hairspray or Footloose, shows that everyone knows and loves, you are usually guaranteed a large and energetic audience. On the other hand, though, shows such as Evil Dead tend to bring in a community of people. This is what I am looking forward to the most. The energy in the audience of shows like this is extremely hard to come by. The Station Theatre is the perfect venue for this type of experience.
Christopher Terrell Brown: There are shows like Cats where generations of people can come together and enjoy more ‘traditional’ theatre, then there are shows like Evil Dead: The Musical that challenge tradition with its context and content. Personally, I was drawn to this musical because of how unorthodox it is; be it for the dialogue, music, or technical demands, this show is bound to be interesting.
Madeline Knight-Dixon: There’s nothing more exciting to me than being part of a show I know nothing about. When you do a lot of musicals, you tend to have the whole show memorized before you even audition, so getting to do a less well-known show gives us all the chance to really LEARN a show. Also, cult shows are so fun because, even if you are just being introduced to it, the audience knows everything about it. The energy you get from that kind of crowd is amazing.
Laura Anne Welle: Something less well-known, but much beloved (like Evil Dead) just has the most interesting fans. I love meeting people who are as nerdy and psyched about something as myself.
SP: In your opinion, what is the coolest thing about Evil Dead?
Knight-Dixon: The fact that I get decapitated on stage is pretty cool in my opinion. There’s this awesome mixture of props and actors playing the dismembered body parts. You never know if that head he’s waving around will open its mouth.
Steen: All-singing, all-dancing zombies and demons, blood, blood, and more blood… Chainsaw. Oh yes, the Chainsaw.
SP: Since this is a send up/homage to horror movies, what is your fave horror flick, and how does Evil Dead pay homage to it?
Brown: The Nightmare on Elm Street series is no doubt my favorite horror franchise, and the reason I was drawn to Evil Dead is very much related. Both are cultish films that tried to be serious only to become more of a parody of themselves. Take your pick: Bruce Campbell fighting his own hand or Breckin Meyer sleep-sprinting through an old house like an ’80s video game character.
Steen: I’m a huge fan of the zombie genre. They are the only thing that really frightens me. Technically, [the creatures in Evil Dead] are demons, but they have definite zombie elements. Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, and Army of Darkness are some of those early horror films that I became obsessed with in high school. They hold a special place in my heart.
Knight- Dixon: My current favorite is Cabin in the Woods, which is a sort of modern adaptation of Evil Dead. It’s a Joss Whedon creation, but a lot of the scenes from that movie come directly from the first Evil Dead. I watch Cabin probably once a week, and a lot more since being a part of this show.
SP: Thanks, gang!
slideshow photos by Sean O’Connor
Evil Dead: The Musical, with book and lyrics by George Reinblatt, music by Frank Cipolla, Christopher, Melissa Morris, and George Reinblatt, is directed by Mikel L. Matthews Jr., with musical direction by Aaron Kaplan and choreography by Whitney Havice. It runs June 26 through July 13 at the Station Theatre in Urbana. To reserve seats, visit the Station website or call (217) 384-4000.