A Few Bones to Pick With 'Cannibal! The Musical'

A Few Bones to Pick
Garage Theatre tries to capture the schlocky intentional-badness of Cannibal! The Musical, but did the cast and crew bite off more than they could chew?

No great cultural achievement ejaculates from its creator’s mind in a single spasm of genius; some touch of intellectual foreplay is always required. His first biographer reported that it took Da Vinci some 16 years to finish Mona Lisa. Huck Finn was born in the pages of a book about Tom Sawyer. George Jefferson sprang to life in All In the Family.

The same holds true for South Park. Five years before the animated series debuted on Comedy Central, Trey Parker and Matt Stone created Jesus vs. Frosty,a rough draft of South Park’s four main adolescents. Around the same time, Stone directed the live-action Cannibal! The Musical, an absurd re-imagining of the true-life saga of Alferd Packer, who was found guilty of manslaughter and accused of cannibalism after the rest of his prospecting team disappeared in 1874.

With a nice chianti
With a nice chianti

Though Cannibal! has nothing to do with South Park other than its Colorado setting, there are obvious stylistic parallels, such as its broad, slapstick humor, use of music, ubiquitous pop-culture references and a certain tendency toward toilet talk. And though it lacks most everything that makes South Park such a cutting-edge sitcom—like, say, freewheeling social commentary, pointed political and religious satire, and Satan sodomizing Saddam Hussein—there are definite traces of the series’ frenetic intensity in Cannibal!

At least there is in the film, which is an intentionally bad, self-referential mock-up of cinematic and musical conventions perfectly ideal for a college film student and the cult-film circuit.

Whether it translates to a live stage is debatable. Since 1998, some 60 theater companies have mounted adaptations. No official stage play exists; New Cannibal Society, an outfit that administers the website cannibalthemusical.net, provides the screenplay, sheet music and an adapters’ guide with hints on how to make the film work onstage. So, the actual work of translating the film to the stage belongs to each production. The Garage Theatre in Long Beach is the first theater in Southern California to do so (although John Beane, whose Insurgo Theater Movement used to hold court in Anaheim, mounted it last year in Las Vegas), and what’s here doesn’t suggest that Cannibal! is the second coming of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While raucously funny at times, it’s a bit sloppy to work as a main-stage production and too long to work as a late-night offering.

The main problem is that the musical is intentionally rough around the edges and filled with shtick and schlock. The trick when mounting something like this is striking the perilous balance between being graceful and seeming to be intentionally bad. No easy task.

This production tries mightily, and it generally works, thanks in large part to a spirited ensemble and some clever, if not imperative, moments of audience interaction. But it tends to drag, especially in the second half, and director Jessica Variz needs to tighten the reins to keep the action moving.

But the production does manage to pull off the rather ungainly tone of Parker’s piece: a main narrative steeped in black comedy interspersed with campy moments of blissfully ignorant, cheesy music, little of which advances the plot but most of which is more fun than a barrel of crack whores. Cute crack whores.

The play itself is deliriously free of anything important. There are no gratuitous PSA moments à la South Park. And there isn’t in much in the way of satire or commentary, other than faint gestures toward rehabilitating the image of Packer, a folk icon of sorts who was sentenced to 40 years in prison for manslaughter.

Using the conceit of an ambitious young reporter (a very talented, underused Sarah Collins) trying to get the real story out of Packer (a poker-faced Bill Woods), Parker’s story is less concerned with the truth behind how the party of gold prospectors goes off-track in the Rocky Mountains than with the love affair between Packer and his horse, Liane (the constantly engaging Calli Dunaway).

Liane slips free one night, and Packer is so consumed with finding her that he leads the party in the direction he thinks she went. Hijinks ensue, from meeting a group of crusty trappers to encountering a freaky Native American tribe that includes an African-American chief (a show-stealing Abina Anthony-Davis, who also shines in several other roles) and Asian tribal members, with a black-power treatise as its tome.

Things ultimately go hideously awry when a Bible-thumping preacher goes mad because of gangrene contracted after stepping into a bear trap. There’s a riotous closing number, “Hang the Bastard,” and then a suitable deus ex machina that has absolutely no connection to what truly happened.

It’s a fun, if bumpy, ride, and if the two-hour-long show lost about a half-hour of fat, it’d be a more satisfying experience (if you’re counting, that’s the first—and last—culinary reference in this review, and that should count for something).

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