Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Theater review: 'Cannibal!' provides silly, gory fun at Promethean

Andy Quiroga as Frenchy in Promethean Theatre's Cannibal!
(Photo by George Schiavone)

By Hap Erstein

The opening announcement at The Promethean Theatre is a sprightly caution that the following show will contain “blood, puke and pus.” Eeew.

Well, they didn’t need to warn us about the blood: The back wall of the stage is already splattered with the stuff before we even enter the Wild West world of the black-box playing space at Nova Southeastern University.

Still, the Promethean’s production is more likely to elicit giggles and guffaws than cries of gruesome horror. For the show is Cannibal! The Musical Live on Stage, a theatricalized version of a student film by Trey Parker (co-creator of Comedy Central’s South Park) about the only convicted cannibal in American history.

That would be Alferd Packer, intrepid but overconfident wilderness guide who led a group of gold-grubbing miners from Provo, Utah, to Breckinridge, Colo., in 1873. Only they got caught in a blizzard before they reached their destination, ran out of food and, well, you can guess their solution. So as Cannibal! begins, Packer is in jail, convicted of going all Sweeney Todd on his expeditionary charges, and the good folks of Breckinridge are eager for a lynching.

You would think that such an unappetizing, offbeat show is a far cry from Oklahoma! But that is exactly the template that Parker, who also wrote the songs, has used to tell this tale. He would often demonstrate his winking affection for and awareness of musicals in South Park, so it was hardly a stretch for him to model his main character here on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s cowpoke Curly.

Packer/Curly sings of his unbridled, if unfounded, optimism in his opening solo, Shpadoinkle! (an all-purpose upbeat adjective, particularly as applied to the day). We are quickly drawn to anyone willing to declare in song, “My heart’s as full as a baked potatah,” even as we realize he is fated for disaster.

The love of his life is his horse Liane, a frisky filly with a flair for flatulence (played coquettishly by a blonde-maned Katherine Amadeo). As Packer, square-jawed, big-voiced Matthew William Chizever wrings his musical tribute to her (When I Was on Top of You) for every single-entendre laugh. If Liane turns out to be less than faithful, that is probably because she is based on a similarly named ex-fiancee of Parker’s whom he discovered was having an affair.

Much of the show’s humor tends towards the downright silly, and apparently neither Parker nor Promenthean resident director Margaret M. Ledford ever met a blood squib that they didn’t like. At a strategic point in the 90-minute, intermissionless show, the cast rolls in a stage-sized carpet, which A) serves as the blanket of snow in the Rockies’ winter and B) catches the spurting blood and minimizes the eventual cleanup.

The miners, led by Jeffrey Bower as a religious zealot, are a rough-and-tough bunch, until called upon to execute Chrissi Ardito’s choreography, a cross between moves from The Unsinkable Molly Brown to West Side Story.

Anne Chamberlain has a relatively straight assignment as earnest Denver Post reporter Polly Pry, whose knee-jerk liberal prose earns Packer a re-trial. A trio of pig Latin-spouting Ute Indians are anything but straight and Ken Clement has fun with a self-reverential role known as -- what else? -- Judge Ken.

Musical direction and piano accompaniment is provided by the ivory-tickling Mark Fiore, whose pre-show medley of TV themes turns out to be mere set-up for some musical punch lines during the show.

Considering how easily the company has made the transition, you would never guess that this is their first foray into musical theater. But judging from the sold-out Sunday matinee attended -- populated by more theatergoers than I have ever seen at a Promenthean show -- it seems unlikely that this will be their last.

CANNIBAL! The Musical Live on Stage, at The Promethean Theatre, Don Taft University Center Black Box Theatre, 3301 College Avenue, Nova Southeastern University campus, Davie. Continuing through Sept. 6. Tickets: $25. Tickets: (866) 811-4111.

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