Most people wouldn't consider cannibalism a ripe subject for musicalization, but thank goodness Trey Parker isn't one of them. The Saturday Players are bringing one of Parker's earliest public efforts, Cannibal! The Musical (a film rejected by the 1995 Sundance Film Festival), to the stage for the first time in the hilarious but ultimately unsatisfying production that opened Saturday night at the Kraine Theater.
Parker's talents have been honed since the film was first produced, but even the material in Cannibal! displays his uncanny ability to get into his characters' heads. When Alferd Packer sings of the promise of the day ahead ("Shpadoinkle," with charming lyrics such as "My heart's as full as a baked potato"), you nonetheless have to believe it. Or, when he explains his affection for his horse in "When I Was On Top of You," the characters' feelings are unmistakable. It may be impossible to forget that the songs' lyrics parody those of traditional show tunes, but they do represent the characters and the situations as well as lyrics by many established composers.
Based on actual events, the story revolves around Alferd Packer (played here by Bryan Brack) who leads a group of men from Utah to Colorado Territory in search of gold. Along the way, they have a run-in with three malicious trappers, lose Packer's beloved horse, Liane, encounter Indians, and take a wrong turn that leads them into danger, far away from their intended destination of Breckenridge. Most of the show centers on the party's adventures as they face the harsh realities of nature and the (mostly) untamed west, and whether they will find enough food to survive. Will the show's title's promise of human flesh-eating be realized onstage? The answer won't be revealed here, but if you're familiar with some of Parker's other work (or even if you're not), you should be able to guess.
Predictable or not, Cannibal! does work, as both a story and a musical. Unfortunately, this stage production falls victim to a trap all too common with "sure-fire" comedies - the performers, almost from the first scene, appear to be in on the joke. While the lines and lyrics suggest the characters and situations are to be taken seriously, the performers usually display a keen sense of awareness, secure in the knowledge that the material is funny, and laughs are guaranteed. As is perhaps to be expected, when this happens, the impact of the humor (and thus the show) is lessened.
One prime example of this is Joshua Gilliam, as Swan, the optimist of the group. Before the general action of the play begins (during the Henry V-like monologue that opens the show), he stands out, displaying a grin that seems a touch too wide and more than a little forced. Though his big number, "Let's Build a Snowman" is enjoyable and the accompanying tap solo is effective, his enthusiasm is a little too unbridled, and the dance as a whole too frenetic for the moment, even accounting for his encroaching insanity. The actors playing the other members of Packer's party (Jeremy Manta, Mark C. Ramsey, and Paul Lange) frequently suffer from many of the same problems.
The other performers fare better - Brack makes an appealing hero, selling his songs and scenes well. Better still is Matt Parson as Bell, the preacher accompanying Packer's group on their journey. Whether playing the shirtless backup guitarist for one of Packer's songs, or jumping in front of a threatening gun, Parson never betrays the serious nature of a situation in favor of an easy laugh. Though Kasey Daley, as Packer's would-be love interest Polly Pry, doesn't handle her songs as well, she is quite effective in her scenes, displaying a warm, yet determined reporter and sympathetic ear, frequently in the same beat.
It is difficult to tell if the uneven quality of the show is due to the performers, the direction (by Joan Eileen Murray), or a combination of the two. While the show overall is enjoyable, this production isn't the best representation of what may be possible. The material in Cannibal! is strong and entertaining, but it must be subjected to the same rules as any comedy to keep it funny and effective. Fans of Parker's other work will doubtless enjoy the stage version of the show, but it remains far from all it could be. Not all film musicals lend themselves to stage musicalization, but Cannibal! does - it simply needs a more honest treatment than it receives here.
Cannibal! The Musical