Cannibal! The Musical starts out lively but ends up eating itself
Cannibal! The Musical began life as a movie written by pre-South Park and Book of Mormon Trey Parker, when he was a film student at the University of Colorado. It starred Parker himself and Matt Stone, and later evolved — or perhaps degenerated — into a stage production that bears all the hallmarks of a Parker-Stone collaboration: juvenile humor, lots of blood, complete irreverence, the slaughter of innocents (poor Kenny!), and every now and then, one of those imaginative comic leaps that leaves you amazed and laughing your head off.
The action begins with a major bloodletting, a fantasy in which the performers enact a prosecutor's description of Alferd Packer's crimes. There's pursuit and murder, blood spurting everywhere, severed arms and bitten necks. Naturally, Packer, the famous prospecting Colorado cannibal, feasts orgiastically. To this day, no one knows exactly what happened when Packer and five companions became lost and snowbound on their trek to Breckenridge and only Packer survived. Packer claimed he came upon Shannon Bell, a Mormon minister, hacking the others to death with an ax and shot him in self-defense — but he went on trial for murder and was found guilty. On stage, locked in his cell and awaiting execution, Packer is visited by news reporter Polly Pry, and he tells her his version of the story.
As he presents himself, Packer is almost Candide-like in his youth and inexperience, and innocently in love with his horse, Liane. He was pressured into agreeing to lead the expedition. En route, the men encountered a tribe of Indians with Japanese accents and three murderous trappers, one of whom, named Frenchy, had designs on Liane far less innocent than Packer's. All this couldn't be sillier, but it's pretty funny, and some scenes are priceless, as when a mountain lion recites cat haiku or a highly sophisticated musical dispute about major and minor keys erupts among the miners. Of course there are songs, with lyrics like "My heart's as full as a baked potato," and Frenchy's declaration that "My dad was an elephant, but that's irrelevant/My ma was an Eskimo." Parker has a good grip on musical style, and his parodies are right on — though given the caliber of the voices here (with the exception of Jeff Butler's big, booming baritone as Frenchy), you can't really tell how deft the songwriting is.
Next Pony and Planet X Productions present Cannibal! in exactly the dumb, boisterous way it requires. Watching it is sort of like observing a group of six-year-old boys at a birthday party leaping on trampolines, hamming it up for each other, trying to top each others' jokes and farts — though a few of the performers do display some acting chops. Verl Hite has it together as Shannon Bell; Mike Thornwall plays Packer with wide-eyed charm; Butler brings a lot of force — and that impressive baritone — to Frenchy; and Jeremy Atkins successfully channels Cartman. Steven Gray is appealing as an infectiously smiley Swan — killed by the others because he insists on singing a happy song about making a snowman even while everyone's freezing (his death is followed by a side-splitting parody of Swan Lake). But this is still a fairly amateur production: lots of bounce, no real timing, and the curtains creaking noisily open and shut, with thudding, bumping and some audible arguments going on behind them.
This doesn't matter for a while; in fact, in the beginning it adds to the laid-back pleasures. It's fun watching the faces of the two stagehands endlessly billowing a sheet of fabric up and down in unconvincing simulation of a river, and so is all the deliberate, nothing's-off-limits grossness — blood spurting from wounds, pus from damaged eyes, the corpse that won't die, the feast of human flesh. Unfortunately, the show won't die. either. At an hour or an hour and a half, it would be a hoot. But like a wounded snake, Cannibal! drags itself across the stage for close to three hours, with jokes that were only mildly funny to begin with repeated over and over, endless rattly music, agonizingly long scene changes. By the second hour, the cast is still having a high old time — and so is much of the audience — but the play, alas, has corpsed and begun to smell.
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