To say "Cannibal! The Musical” is an acquired taste is a bad and obvious—but not an untrue—cannibalism joke. But to say that many of the jokes in “Cannibal,” playing in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center for the Arts this weekend, are tasteless is also true. And that's to be expected.
To appreciate “Cannibal” you don’t have to be a die-hard fan of “South Park,” the long-running, button-pushing animated show on Comedy Central, or need to have seen the multiple Tony-winning Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon.”
It helps, though.
However, if you are a dedicated fan of those other edgier comedic projects by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, you may find “Cannibal” disappointing.
The plot is very loosely based on the actual prosecution of Alferd Packer, the only miner out of a handful to survive a trek from Provo, Utah, to Breckenridge in Colorado Territory in 1883. He is assumed to have survived by eating his comrades—the worst of several possibly faulty assumptions made about the lead character, played as a sympathetic simp by Benjamin Zoey.
That’s as serious as the storyline gets, however. Several upbeat songs and silly spirited dance numbers ensue as the nine-member cast recreate the fateful mountain trek, as the jailed Packer recalls it to reporter Poly Pyre, played by Michelle Nash.
Broadly played gay and Native American stereotypes elicit uncomfortable laughter, as do none-too-subtle references to Packer’s seemingly unnatural love for his horse, Liane. “Shpadoinkle” is a made-up word that at first sounds like a stand-in for cursing—until actual profanity comes to dominate the dialogue.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn't offended. Juvenile humor is in my wheelhouse, and “Cannibal” has truly riotous moments. Chris Vergara, in particular, kills it in the roles of the ever-optimistic miner Swan and the Indian chief/karate instructor.
Yet the hilarity is not unrelenting. I would assert that “Cannibal” is much less satirically funny than “South Park” (although I say that as only a sporadic viewer of the TV show) or “Book of Mormon” (which I’ve read glowing reviews of but not actually seen). The latter is returning to Overture Center in May, though, so I could get the chance to make a more informed comparison then.
The success of “Book of Mormon” likely prompted this suped-up version of “Cannibal,” which is making its U.S. premiere here in Madison. While “Mormon” has maintained rave reviews since its debut in 2011, “Cannibal” has been staged by amateur companies, off-off-Broadway and at fringe festivals since 1996. Parker first made “Cannibal” in 1993 as a feature film while still a University of Colorado at Boulder student. The film even predates “South Park,” which first aired in 1997 and is still in production. The “Cannibal” movie has enjoyed a cult following (a 56 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes from critics but an 82 percent audience score on the same site).
“Cannibal” executive producer Jason McHugh, who played the butcher Miller in the film, says this stage production was expanded with six new songs into a two-act musical.
That’s all well and good, but it gives audience members—such as the older couple in the same row as myself—the option not to return after intermission. At the end of the first act, I overheard the man say the show was not what he expected. He looked a bit scandalized. Maybe seeing a prop horse’s rear end making a, ahem, deposit on stage was too much for he and his date. Or maybe it was the lead character then picking up said deposit and tasting it that did them in.
I admit simultaneously laughing and cringing at that moment. But I had two thoughts immediately thereafter: 1) It occurred to me that someone was probably paid good money by this national touring show to build that particular prop for that one disgusting gag, and 2) the gag wasn’t nearly as funny as Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo of “South Park” infamy.
So be warned: While I may not draw the line at potty humor, others do. You may be among them.
Joel Patenaude is Associate Editor of Madison Magazine.