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article imageReview: Toronto production of ‘Cannibal! The Musical’ is great silly fun Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Feb 18, 2015 in Entertainment
Toronto - When “South Park” co-creator Trey Parker made a three-minute joke trailer for “Alferd Packer: The Musical” for film school in 1992, he probably didn’t imagine that it would evolve into a sellout stage show in another country two decades later.
But now it’s 2015 in Toronto, where Cannibal! The Musical is a reality – and already looks to be a hit. Adapted from the gore-drenched, subversively silly micro-budget movie that Parker made following the fake trailer (and that became a cult favourite on home video after he got famous), Cannibal! is the first full-scale, professional staging of Parker’s musical horror farce. The show, which opened last night, owes its existence in part to co-writer and director Christopher Bond, one of the folks behind Evil Dead: The Musical. And while it’s not as bloody as Evil Dead, it’s just as much fun.
Despite the show’s debt to classic family musicals past, especially Oklahoma!, it’s not for everybody. If you’re more at home with the Sound of Music or Mary Poppins crowd, then Cannibal! is most definitely not for you. In fact, it’s designed to offend and traumatize you. But if you’re open to cheap, sophomoric jokes about cannibalism, bestiality and racism, along with brutal violence and some literal gallows humour, then let me welcome you warmly. For those who know the film, I’ll paraphrase one of the songs: I think you know precisely what I mean, when I say it’s a Shpadoinkle play.
Surprisingly faithful to Parker’s movie, Cannibal! is loosely based on the true story of Alferd Packer (Liam Tobin), the only man in America ever convicted for cannibalism. He’s depicted as a likeable young man in 1870s Utah who reluctantly finds himself leading a group of men on a lengthy hike to find gold in Colorado. Things go awry when Alferd’s horse, Lianne – with whom Alferd appears to have a disturbingly close relationship, as highlighted by the song, “When I Was on Top of You” – runs away one night, along with all the men’s food and supplies. (Parker reportedly named the horse after an ex-fiancee.)
Along the journey, they encounter some bizarre and ridiculous characters: a trio of singing fur trappers, led by the sadistic Frenchy (Mike “Nug” Nahrgang); a group of Japanese people posing as a Native American tribe for no apparent reason; and a “Cyclops” – actually a giant, one-eyed Confederate veteran (Tim Porter) who spews pus from where his other eye should be. All of this is told in flashback by Alferd, recounting his side of the story to reporter Polly Pry (Elicia MacKenzie) while sitting in his jail cell, awaiting his trial verdict and execution. Why were the other men found dead and partially eaten in the snow in the mountains? Alferd’s explanation is both horrifying and hilarious.
All this is done with little expense spared for sets, costumes and choreography. Fun stage gimmicks include animal puppets, a river crossing that plays like an Atari game, a Japanese gong for the “Indian” scenes and a horse’s arse. Bond’s confident, sure-fire direction and a top-notch cast (some of them local Second City alumni, in multiple roles) keep the action going with nary a slow or confused spot. Not only does Tobin have great singing chops, but he’s also a fine straight man, suitably baffled by all the nonsense happening around him. Marty Adams is lovably over the top in multiple roles, including nerdy fellow hiker Humphrey and “good ol’ boy” court prosecutor Mills. MacKenzie (a past Dora winner, for Mirvish’s The Sound of Music) gets an opportunity to show off her powerful voice, and Porter is very funny as the most effeminate of the trappers.
Cannibal!’s scatter-shot comedy style guarantees that not all gags will hit the mark, and Bond has a few missed opportunities with jokes that worked in the movie (such as Polly’s early realization that Lianne was not a human being). A few other times, there’s too much setup or telegraphing for gags and songs that would be funnier on their own. But the script by Bond, Trevor Martin and Aaron Eyre compensates with some great new one-liners. Humphrey’s invitation to the others to dine on their first victim scores huge laughs, as does his desperate attempt to pass off as a Southerner through song, while Porter has a hilarious comeback to one hiker’s boast of his Christian faith. (I won’t dare give these lines away.) Other added jokes about horse excrement and flatulence are utterly gratuitous, but at least are consistent with Parker’s scatological sensibilities.
Also worth mentioning is Stacey Maroske’s wonderful choreography, which recognizes the campiness of the material but also takes it seriously. There’s a cute ballet bit that echoes both Oklahoma! and West Side Story, featuring Alferd and Lianne (Lana Carillo) in a romantic dream sequence, and “The Trapper Song”, with Frenchy using a dead rodent as a makeshift mic, is another highlight.
Most surprising is how well Parker’s original songs from the movie still hold up. Blending classic Broadway numbers with Pythonesque lyrics, songs like “Shpadoinkle” (a semi-parody of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”), “Let’s Build a Snowman” and “That’s All I’m Asking For” are not only funny, but also well written as music. That’s partly why the five new songs that Bond co-wrote with lyricist Martin and composer Eyre are disappointing: not to say that they’re bad or anything – the gospel-influenced “Meat My Destiny” is clever in its own way – but they just don’t match up with Parker’s absurdist wit and simple, hummable melodies. It’s a little reminiscent of the way Andrew Lloyd Webber botched his stage version of The Wizard of Oz by adding his own songs to the iconic movie ones.
Yes, it’s juvenile and tasteless and crude and disgusting. Yes, the story’s ludicrous and full of holes. But what did you expect from a show called Cannibal! The Musical? You’re not coming here for the wordplay and sophistication of Noel Coward; you can get that at Blithe Spirit (which is terrific, by the way). Cannibal! promises a different level of theatrical pleasure, and it mostly delivers. It’s even more fun than – oh, why not? – than a baked potato.
Cannibal! The Musical runs at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre until March 8.
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