By the end of the first verse of the first song in “Cannibal! the Musical,” a man’s arm has been ripped off. We’re not even to the end of the second verse before a severed head rolls onstage.
And yet if anyone in the Capitol Theater audience Wednesday night was expecting a gross-out time at “Cannibal!,” an adaptation of the cult film by “South Park” co-creator Trey Parker, they likely came away hungry. Despite its grisly subject matter, “Cannibal!” deliberately and defiantly prizes goofiness over gore. It’s full of toe-tapping fun, raunchy sight gags and a lot of heart. And kidneys, and spleen, and intestines…
Parker’s original 1993 film, made when he was a college student, was based on the infamous tale of Alferd Packer, a Colorado prospector who confessed to cannibalizing four men while lost in the mountains during the winter of 1874. So, naturally, he made it into a musical.
Parker and his partner Matt Stone went on to hone their musical chops in “Book of Mormon” and “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.” With the blessing of Parker and his “Cannibal!” collaborator Jason McHugh, Christopher Bond, Aaron Eyre and Trevor Martin beefed up the original film, doubling the number of songs and adding a bunch of new gags. After a successful run in Canada, this new production has its U.S. premiere in Madison and runs through Sunday.
The play picks up the pacing of the film, turning it into a breakneck farce with broad slapstick, fart noises, sheep puppets and an undying love for the word “Shpadoinkle.” That the one-liners and outsized performances were funny wasn’t a surprise. What was unexpected was the high-energy, full-cast choreographed dance numbers, part “Oklahoma!” and part Three Stooges, that give “Cannibal” so much daffy exuberance.
After the bloody prologue illustrating the legend of Packer, the play shifts to the relatively mild-looking man (Benjamin Zoey) languishing in his cell awaiting sentencing and insisting his innocence to ambitious reporter Polly Prye (Michelle Nash). Yes, it’s “Making a Muncher,” as Packer recounts what really happened up on that mountain pass. Despite the anger of local townspeople demanding he be hanged (“Ham and Eggs, Not Sams and Gregs” reads one protester’s sign), Packer’s only real sin appears to be a perhaps improper affection for his horse Lianne.
The prospectors’ perilous journey leads them into encounters with snide French trappers, a Native American tribe that may actually be Japanese, even a one-eyed mountain man whose squirting eye socket gave a few in the front row a refreshing sprinkle. It’s really juvenile, often very funny, and the production keeps the gags moving so fast that any misfires fade into memory.
What “Cannibal!” lacks is a little meat on its bones, the sophisticated sort of satire that underlies the laugh lines in “Mormon” or much of “South Park.” A new song called “Gentleman of the West” spoofs the sanctimony of the townspeople calling for Packer’s head (“We must be the chosen ones/God gave us all these guns”), but more typical of the show’s vibe is a “Super Mario Bros.” parody or a dream sequence in which Packer dances in a tutu with his horse.
But it’s a good, silly, naughty time at the theater, especially with such a talented cast. Zoey is amiable as the hapless Packer, who offers himself as dinner to his fellow prospectors (“Eat me like sashimi/I’m dairy- and grain-free”).
The rest of the versatile cast gets to play three or four roles. Nash showcases her powerhouse voice in the jailhouse lament “This Side of Me” and plops on a silly wig to play a crazed prophet lady. Another big standout is Chris Vergara, a delight as the cheerful prospector Swan, who exhorts his fellows to “Let’s Build a Snowman” in a song from the original film that many have noticed sounds an awful lot like a “Frozen” song that came two decades later. (It’s a similarity this new “Cannibal!” can’t resist poking fun at.)
So, by all means, go and have a good time. Just maybe order the salad at dinner beforehand.