Had Trey Parker and Matt Stone never teamed for "South Park," their work together on the earlier "Cannibal! The Musical" might have been a mere blip on the entertainment world's radar.
As it stands, "South Park" fame drew attention to the 1993 indie film the pair created while still students at the University of Colorado. And thanks to "South Park," the film became a cult phenomenon.
Various amateur, community, college and high school stage versions, and one off-off-Broadway, have been mounted since the film's initial release, but Maverick Theater's new staging under its Staged Cinema Productions banner is the Southern California regional premiere of "Cannibal!"
The story concerns Alferd Packer, who was tried and convicted of murder and cannibalism in 1883 – a true event given a lighthearted, multi-genre treatment.
Director Curtis Jerome adroitly handles Parker's script, which bounces between two time periods: the present, which shows Packer's trial, conviction and execution date, and the past, as Packer (Topher Mauerhan), while in jail, relates his story to newspaper reporter Polly Pry (Kari C. Kennedy).
The first flashback presents Packer and the love of his life (Sabrina Zellers) – but Liane, the object of Packer's affection, isn't a woman. She's his faithful horse.
During late 1873, Packer is pressed into service as a guide for a small mining expedition heading from Utah to Breckenridge, Colo. Trouble is, he's barely familiar with the topographies of Utah and Colorado, and when Liane disappears, he can scarcely concentrate.
Soon, the quintet – Packer and the five would-be miners – are in the Rockies, trapped by heavy snow and low on provisions. Eventually, madness, mayhem and murder erupt, as does the gruesome concept of practicing cannibalism to survive. The question is, did Packer shoot and devour his companions, or were one or more of his charges the guilty parties?
As with "South Park," "Cannibal!" has a loose, silly, goofy and often nonsensical tone. Much of its dialogue contains comedic non sequiturs and is spiced with salty language and profanities, all taken in comedic stride by Jerome's cast.
Parker uses the story's framework to quote and lampoon well-known cultural touchstones – everything from "The Waltons" to "The Beverly Hillbillies." The nonsense word "Shpadoinkle" is a key adjective, interjection and exclamation, and the show's main song, "It's a Shpadoinkle Day," a takeoff of "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" from "Oklahoma!"
Then, too, morbid humor runs rampant, whether in dialogue or in Parker's lyrics to the seven songs he composed.
The opening scene depicts murderous clowns in white face and stringy yellow hair who kill humans and eat their innards, with red ribbons used to represent human guts.
A tribe of Indians who are actually Japanese is exactly the kind of touch Parker and Stone would later become known for.
Mauerhan's Packer is big and goofy yet honest and candid – a well-meaning but inept dolt. Scott Keister expertly brings a dark, vulture-like sensibility to the voices and personas of The Master of Ceremonies and the other roles the MC slips into and out of.
J. Mel Jarnagin, Ryan Young, Andrew Manzani, Ricky Augustin and Reggie Koffman carve distinct characters as would-be miners Frank Miller, Shannon Bell, George Noon, James Humphrey and Israel Swan.
As French Cabazon, the trapper who hates "diggers" (miners), Nick Emmett McGee effects a rednecky voice and crude personality and gives "The Trapper Song" sexy rock vocals. A wordless Zellars mimes the actions of a horse, yet Liane's body language is that of a sensuous woman – yet Packer's affection for Liane is innocent, not smarmy.
A frequent director of Maverick musicals, Jerome has also choreographed this staging and created its scenic design and costumes, and in the dream/dance sequence, he plays the ballet-dancing dream version of the Packer character.
Jerome's all-purpose set depicts trees, a skyline and the entrance to a cave. His costumes and makeup generate enjoyably offbeat touches, such as that of Shelley Natale's "Map Girl," who wears a large, foldout map of Colorado and Utah showing key cities where the action takes place.
Loaded with double entendres, Parker's lyrics create some big belly laughs. His score is unambitious but more than merely functional. Like Monty Python, his songs evoke the right, offhandedly ridiculous mood for every musical number. Paul McGlinchel expertly plays the score on keyboard while conducting three others, including McGee on guitar.
For the record, Parker wrote and directed the original film and played Packer under the pseudonym of "Juan Schwartz," a variation of the name Packer himself used while trying to evade arrest. Stone played the role of Humphrey. So "Cannibal!" wasn't the two-man collaboration of "South Park."
As the duo's teaming up and "South Park" fame were still four years away, this live version of "Cannibal!" is obviously something their fans will want to devour.