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Blood, Chainsaws, and Zombies: Not Your Average Musical

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THERE WILL BE BLOOD. And it will be zombie blood. Savage Vanguard Theater and Doctuh Mistuh Productions are teaming up to bring the slash hit, wait that’s, smash hit musical version of Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead Trilogy” to Austin this October. Debuting in Toronto in 2003, the show has enjoyed successful runs worldwide in New York City, Seoul, Tokyo, Cleveland, and Louisville. The play combines the plots of all three movies with a few liberties taken here and there to keep it both streamlined for performance and fresh for fanatics. Rest assured that both Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell have given their approval for this production. None-the-less, the realm of cult cinema is still dangerous ground to tread, and not just for those with delicate sensibilities. Fan-boys have been known to get as rabid as zombies when reproductions of their beloved favorites stray even the slightest bit from the original conception.

And Austin is no exception, before any official advertising came out for the local production the inter-web was buzzing. “We were shocked at the response we got.” Michael McKelvey, founder of Doctuh Mistuh Productions, tells us. “We were surprised about how many people were talking. Word of mouth got around, especially on facebook.” Even before rehearsals began the play was “in demand” by various Austin theaters who were willing to host it. However for McKelvey, The Salvage Vanguard Theater was the best choice. “Their space just seemed right since it’s kind of a gritty piece and Salvage is known for their gutsiness and their solid audience base.” Other theaters were too big or too small and maybe even too clean cut. But what about the fans?

“It’s a lot of extra pressure.” McKelvey admits, “There’s a lot of expectations of what it should be. We’ve been talking about all the iconic things with the movies we have to stay true to appease the fans” Of course, it’s impossible to include everything from three feature films so the play use the first act to re-cap “Evil Dead” but takes its story line from “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn,” and uses “Army of Darkness” for its spectacular end. Still it’s not exactly reverent. Like the movies it is steeped in sex, gore, violence, and adult language but in a playful fashion. “It pokes fun at the movies in a loving way. The first song makes fun of five stupid kids going into the woods to party with no sort of protection. It pokes fun at the whole slasher genre,” McKelvey says.

Michael McKelvey, who received his Doctorate of Musical Arts from the University of Texas, is directing as well producing the piece. He is certainly up to the task. The acting coordinator of the Music Department at St. Edward’s University, McKelvey resume includes every major theater in Austin including the Austin Lyric Opera, The State/Live Oak Theatre, Austin Shakespeare Festival, and Mary Moody Northern Theatre. Outside of St. Edwards, he has also been the musical and vocal director for Austin Musical Theatre, The State Theatre Company, and Austin Playhouse. He has won awards for best musical direction from both the Austin Critic’s Table and B. Iden Payne. For him, this musical was an easy choice for Austin. “The theater scene here is youthful and energetic, the vibe is right. It’s also a big movie town.”

So when he and assistant director Elle Mahoney began casting for this production, the turnout out of seventy-five candidates for a mere nine parts is not much a of surprise. Even after casting, the inquiries for parts kept coming in. The result for McKelvey, “the decision process was excruciating.” There was a need to match the people to their characters because for fan-boys the character of Ash, alone, is legendary. He has been appearing in comic strips since 1992 and is one of the most quoted cult movie characters, not to mention his nearly eponymous one word line, “Groovy.” And yet looks were a small part of the picture, as McKelvey was also concerned with vocal dynamics, physical comedy, acting ability, and even improv skills. The character of Ash needs a “high rock tenor” range, which is not a common thing to come by; not to mention the nearly elastic face of Bruce Campbell. McKelvey has chosen David Gallagher for the part, who he calls, “the most versatile actor in Austin.” One particular stand out from the auditions was Corley Pillsbury, who landed the part of Ash’s girlfriend, Cheryl. “Corley is a dynamo. We did a lot of improv work during auditions,” McKelvey explains, “and she just tore it up. I never saw someone go so over the top in an audition.” Her efforts became all the more impressive in retrospect when he learned that she was actually sick during auditions.

And if zealous acting and top notch musical direction is not enough to draw in the crowds, this show also has a live three piece band, late night parties with food and drink, and an beguilingly appropriate closing date of Halloween complete with yet another party. But most of all it has blood. As soon as the play was announced the first question on everyone, who was familiar with its, lips was will there be a “splash zone.” And there will be. Right in front of the stage, a special cordoned area for those who want to take their interactive theater home with them: on their face.

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