“God has cared for these trees,” said naturalist John Muir on one of his Western expeditions a century ago. “He has saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods… But he cannot save them from fools.”
The blood, screaming, cornball songs, and fart jokes that tumble roughly into place on the Landless stage this month don’t add up to the ecological threat Muir imagined. But this foolish clan of cave boys does, by the end, blaze a trail to be reckoned with. Cannibal! the Musical, written by “South Park” co-creator Trey Parker, is a rowdy, randy, supremely inexpert rockslide of a show, which comes about as close to capturing the beauty of the American West as a night of frat party Polaroids adds up to an Ansel Adams exhibit.
One might expect a musical about 1870s pioneer life to cast a grand sweeping gaze across the lives of wholesome, intrepid families, heroically defying the odds simply by surviving. In other words, to be kind of boring and not very funny. This is, fortunately, neither boring nor not-funny. It is, in fact, very funny. And if Saturday’s audience is any indication, Cannibal’s audiences will continue to (forgive me) eat it up.
If you learn only one thing about your rugged forefathers from this shaggy foray into the woods, let it be this: camping trips are super duper fun… until they’re totally not fun at all. Based on a true story from 1870s Colorado, the story centers on Alferd Packer (Patrick M. Doneghy), who has been jailed and put on trial for murder. His crime: stumbling into town as the sole survivor of a Utah expedition across the Rockies. The five other men who tagged along were murdered and partially eaten. What’s a hotheaded, rabble-rousing frontier court to conclude other than five counts of aggravated cannibalism?
The details of what happened on the road are somewhat more complicated, although why on earth Packer thinks the jury will find the whole truth more believable than the headlines is neither clear nor particularly relevant. In the meantime, he gives an exclusive jail-cell interview to Denver Post reporter Polly Pry (Stefanie Garcia), and as the memories from that terrible trip spring to life, we learn what our elementary school teachers didn’t want us to know about frontier America.
For one thing, fur trappers in the Rockies dressed like the Flintstones and talked in slack-jawed drawls like extras from”Deliverance.” As the head of the trapper gang that keeps crossing paths with Packer’s posse, the growly-voiced Steve Custer is especially funny — a pint-sized Ralph Kramden in a leopard-print toga.
For another thing, Russian mobsters were hiding out in the hills during this period, masquerading as Native Americans (Matt Baughman, enigmatic in a headdress and shiny aviator sunglasses, seems to play their evil leader). Also, a Cyclops. And you thought you knew your American history.
Parker composed this silly thing back in 1993, long before The Book of Mormon rocketed him and his South Park buddy Matt Stone to Tony Award heaven earlier this year. But that smash hit’s signature flair — a dark swirl of juvenile joys and rocky-road adult humor — appear in primordial form in Cannibal! the Musical. And when director Andrew Lloyd Baughman and his cast of ten knock the pieces together, this little nugget of fools gold sparks some modest flames as well.
Overall, it’s broad humor for a broadly conceived production. And this hike certainly has its valleys as well as its peaks. The songs, while serviceable, don’t really stick in the brain. And not everyone seems to have mastered the art of having a character, although Doneghy pulls more than his due weight in the lead. Amusing turns from Matthew Ancarrow’s dippy youth George Noon, as well as from Darius Epps as Doneghy’s flamboyant friend Israel Swan (who wants to make snowmen while everyone else is freezing to death) keep the enterprise rolling.
Quite a few of the jokes, unaided by clear comic timing, float around the room for a moment and fall away, rather than landing with any purpose. Chalk it up, mostly, to some clumsy staging and dissipated focus. Although, in truth, it’s easy to empathize with the challenges of such a tiny playing space as DC Arts Center, in which it’s a bit of a puzzle to stand more than eight characters onstage in anything more dynamic than a line. Baughman, to his credit, mostly makes up for it with his zealous use of the backstage crossover, which has Packer’s expedition running off screaming every ten minutes only to loop around and reappear moments later.
Cannibal! The Musical will never win the Tony Award. Trey Parker might as well have called this one The Book of Morons. But lowbrow humor has never been a stretch for Landless. In fact, reaching to the bottom of that particular barrel of sour apples requires a flexibility we might just find refreshing.
It’s a tragedy, I suppose, that Packer’s pack of pione’er-do-wells were doomed to disappear in the mountains. But their bizarre deaths impart a good life lesson: just keep singing. And for pete’s sake, pack some sandwiches.
Cannibal! The Musical runs thru Dec 23, 2011 at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th St NW, Washington, DC.
Cannibal! The Musical
Written by Trey Parker
Directed by Andrew Lloyd Baughman
Produced by Landless Theatre Co.
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission