Story: In 1883 Alferd Packer is put on trial for the murder and cannibalism of five other miners who had journeyed with him from Provo, Utah in 1873 in search of gold in Breckenridge, Colorado. In flashback, the convicted Packer tells reporter Polly Pry about their ill-fated adventure, how they became lost after Parker’s beloved horse Liane took off with another man, a scurvy trapper named Frenchy Cabazon.
It becomes apparent to the other miners (Bell, Swan, Humphrey, Miller and Noon) that Packer doesn’t know where they are. They stumble upon some Japanese-speaking ‘Indians’ who invite them to spend the winter with them, but Packer convinces the miners to continue their quixotic quest. Weeks later, in desperation Bell kills Swan and the remaining members of the party eat his remains. When Packer goes on a scouting expedition, he returns to find all but Bell dead, and shoots the deranged Mormon minister in self-defense, or so he claims. Pry saves Packer from the gallows with a governor’s stay of execution delivered shortly before Packer’s planned hanging, with Liane at her side.
Highlights: Based on the true story of Packer, the only convicted cannibal in American history, Cannibal! The Musical was written by South Park creator Trey Parker and co-produced with his future South Park colleague Matt Stone and others while they were students at the University of Colorado in 1993. The 96-minute film, made for $125,000, was released in 1996 and has been adapted just a few times for the stage, in 2001 in an off-Broadway production as well as a West End presentation and a showing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Horror movie aficionado Suki Peters and her husband Brian Peters are presenting the Missouri premiere of their stage musical adaptation that is high on energy, side-splitting laughs and straight-ahead goofiness that is both endearing and immensely entertaining. The opening weekend’s three performances all played to sold-out houses, a trend likely to continue throughout its three-week run.
Other Info: The Peters may have to offer monthly late-night weekend showings of this silly story to accommodate the demand for tickets. Cannibal! The Musical has everything you’d expect from the creators of South Park, although this stage version owes allegiance as much to Monty Python in its style and execution and even in its longer-than-necessary running time of about 100 minutes. That’s about 20 minutes more than it needs to be, as it eventually runs out of hilarity and begins to feed off itself (sorry) with repetitive humor.
Still, director Suki Peters has a knack for capturing the essence of stories she adapts to the stage, and succeeds delightfully in moving Parker’s manic style from the screen to the theater. Opening with some inspired lunacy in a ridiculous but hilarious short film concocted by Bob Singleton and shown on a video screen above center stage that somewhat introduces the characters, the production shrewdly utilizes the comfortable Booth Theatre stage to accommodate a large and inspired cast.
There’s something for everyone who likes controlled lunacy. Keith Parker fills Packer with an amiable and dull-witted charm, a man whose love for his horse is cleverly conveyed in the number, When I Was on Top of You. The Python influence is unmistakable in the broad and campy tune, That’s All I’m Asking For, with some deft and nimble choreography by Maria Straub that puts the Booth stage to judicious use as Chris “Mr.” Jones, Eustace Allen, Bradley Behrmann, Ben Ritchie and Sean Green join Parker in a rowdy dance that pokes fun at Oklahoma! as well as paying homage to the Python lads.
Ritchie is a hoot as the serious-minded Miller, who often casts a wary eye at the less-than-macho behavior of his colleagues. Costume designer Beth Ashby adds a layer of humor to Miller with his out-of-era Dockers get-up, evidence of her free-wheeling touch that is depicted in myriad other characters, including the Japanese Indian chief played with comic precision by Alan David or the bare midriff of the suggestive Liane.
The set designed by ‘Juan Schwartz’ (a paean to the movie) allows for a saloon at one end, mountains and maps in the background aided by Singleton’s videos and projections, a courtroom and even a makeshift prison cell where Pry (Caitlin Mickey demonstrating her own deft touch with comedy) interrogates and flirts with the addle-brained Packer.
Morgan Hatfield, Valleri Dillard and Deech Mestel contribute an amusing assortment of bloody props, Jeff Roberts peppers his sound design with themes from various old TV westerns courtesy of Larry Kornfeld, Jason Coale adds some tasty scenic art and Behrmann gets the cast to give their utmost as musical director on the show’s handful of silly but strategic tunes.
Jones, Behrmann, Green, Allen and Ritchie bring varying degrees of subtlety or lack thereof to the miners’ roles, while Dennis Folwarczny is properly villainous as the mocking Cabazon, with due assistance from Andrew Webber and Robbie Haupt as his filthy trapper comrades. Nicole Angeli steals one scene after another, whether as a fire-and-brimstone matron demanding Packer’s head or a coy Japanese damsel flirting with Noon, while Betsy Saule triumphs as the mischievous Liane uttering nary a word. Roger Erb, Mike Monsey, John Foughty, Chuck Brinkle, Maxwell Knocke, Hatfield, Dillard, Ashby and Straub also join in the manic mayhem, which often brings to mind Donna Northcott’s frenzied Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre troupe.
It’s stupid, silly, overly long and frequently immature, but Cannibal! The Musical also is fitfully funny and a rollicking good time. Just save room for dessert.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Group: Cannibal-STL Productions
Venue: Booth Theatre, 109 Crestwood Court, Watson at Sappington
Dates: November 11, 12, 18, 19
Tickets: $10-$15; contact 662-0097 or Cannibal-STL.com
Photos courtesy of Brian Peters