There are some who believe the first draft of a novel, a manuscript littered with scrawled paragraphs, psychotic-looking notes in the margins and lines everywhere, can be instructive in gauging a writer's development from confused and suicidal to brilliant. Cannibal! The Musical isn't that different. Anyone who has come to appreciate the talent—if not outright brilliance—of South Park and The Book of Mormon co-creator Trey Parker can't help but see early warning signals of each in this early work. The discriminating consumer also can't avoid the fact this is a sloppy, misshapen work that, had anyone not named Trey Parker knocked it out as an undergraduate film student, would be nothing more than a cult classic for intentionally bad movie buffs.
But it has culty acolytes and Parker's name has traction, which means scores of small theaters across the country have turned Parker's self-produced 1993 film (originally titled Alferd Packer: The Musical) into a stage play. This Maverick Theater production is billing itself as the Southern California premiere, which is interesting since we reviewed a 2009 production of it in Long Beach at the Garage Theatre—but who are we to bring that up?
An official stage version doesn't exist. Basically, theater companies ask for permission at cannibalthemusical.com, and they're given a copy of the screenplay, the score and, if they wish, an adapter's guide. How much director Curtis Jerome leaned on the guide, if at all, is anyone's guess, but he supplies a clever and accessible framework by turning this production into a vaudevillian affair laced with high melodrama and low comedy staged by a troupe of old-timey actors.
Cannibal! The Musical at Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-7070; www.mavericktheater.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through Sept. 14. $15-$25.
Scott Keister does a fine job of portraying the Master of Ceremonies (doubling as an Indian chief), who serves as narrator and ringmaster. He introduces us to Alferd Packer (a wonderfully deer-in-the-headlights Toper Mauerhan), on trial for the one crime against humanity that no one seems to skate from: cannibalism. Polly (the sweet-throated Kari C. Kennedy), an enterprising journalist looking for a scoop to make her name, convinces Packer to open up, against his attorney's advice. The rest of the story is told in flashback: Packer is a hapless miner in Provo, Utah, who just happened to once live in Colorado territory. His mining associates, weary of all digging and no gold, learn this and ask him to lead an expedition to Breckinridge, where it's rumored there's a rich strike.
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He agrees, but he's a worse navigator than Gilligan's skipper, leading the group into a platoon of French trappers (led by the always captivating Nick Emmett McGee) who kidnap his beloved Liane, a horse (Sabrina Zellers) that is just about the sexiest filly this side of Regret (the first filly to ever win the Kentucky Derby; yes, we had to look it up . . .). Far more concerned with tracking down Liane than getting to Breckinridge in the allotted three-week time to miss any inclement weather, Packer stumbles through the Rocky Mountains, leading his crew into raging rivers, Indian settlements and, of course, a terrifying Cyclops (a riotous, eye-patch-sporting, Confederate uniform-wearing Kevin J. Garcia). Then the snow starts falling and stomachs begin growling. . . .
Based on a true story, Parker took great liberties with the tale (the real Packer was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 1886 and wound up paroled, dying in Littleton, Colorado, at the age of 65—reportedly as a vegetarian). The cutesy happy ending wrapped in a nice bow, the subtle jabs at Mormons and the clever songs that don't necessarily advance the plot but are filled with cheeky and absurd references (for some reason, a baked potato is the holy grail of this show) reveal some of the stylistic and irreverently tasteful concerns that Parker would develop as he matured.
Jerome's production emphasizes the funny, and his eager cast rarely disappoints. Ricky Augustin, J. Mel Jarnagin, Reggie Koffman, Andrew Manzani and Ryan Young, as his star-crossed mining pals, are the main supporting characters, and each gets ample opportunity to display his eccentricities, whether it's a manic desire to build snowmen when shit really starts going down or humping anything in sight. Things do tend to look cluttered when most of the 18-person cast is onstage, but the energy rarely lags, and while Cannibal! is really nothing more than a harmless trifle, the commitment to old-school melodrama and ad-libbing makes it an entertaining one.
Now that his work has won Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards (and been nominated for an Academy Award), Parker has long shed his persona as an acid-dropping, cross-dressing enfant terrible. He's establishment now, a certifiable brand. And the most fascinating thing about Cannibal! isn't the work nearly as much as the chance to sample an early appetizer prepared by a maverick chef who has made a fortune from serving entrails from the belly of the beast that has been forced to accept him on his own terms.