‘Cannibal!’ comes alive in transition from film

Insurgo Theater Movement’s “Cannibal! The Musical!” gets right to the point. A few people wander onto the stage and immediately get their limbs torn off and eaten, complete with spurts of blood so voluminous that audience members in the first couple of rows share in the bounty. It must warm the hearts of die-hard theater lovers to see how the musical has changed since the days of Gilbert and Sullivan.

What is genuinely surprising, though, is how much mileage John Beane’s adaptation of Trey Parker’s 1996 screenplay gets out of a one-note joke.

Parker’s spoof of the wholesomeness of the movie musical was disappointingly lame. You expected more outrageousness from the co-creator of “South Park.” But Beane not only adds layers of comedy, he transforms the movie into an homage of stage convention. The improvisatory quality of the dialogue, the joking about a quick costume change, the chase sequences (featuring an unexplained alien) that have a heavy actor walk around a saloon entrance set piece because he’s too fat to walk through, a horse that is now a galloping, beautiful woman, all feel born of the stage.

The story tells the tale of Alfred Packer (Shawn Hackler), a man accused of eating his scouting party on a late-1800s expedition to the Colorado Territory. But it’s just an excuse for some tongue-in-cheek show-biz-y songs, and some cleverly awful Mel Brooks-type jokes.

It’s disappointing that the cast members (with the happy exception of the charming Cynthia Vodovoz as a journalist) don’t have much in the way of singing chops, but Marko Westwood has molded them into effective dancers. The choreographer does a nifty job of incorporating character, plot and mood so that you always know what the dancers are dancing about. There’s a skillful consistency in playing style.

Timothy Burris makes for a threatening, brawny but ultimately harmless head trapper; Sandy Stein is a hoot as an Indian chief with a penchant for modern food and TV-Western talk; Tommie Lang seems to inhabit his own, wacky world as a man who thinks building a snowman is the answer to all of life’s problems; John E. Carson does a mean take-off on the sociopath Eric Cartman; and Glenn Heath, as a Book of Mormon-touting preacher, seems the most grounded of all, until he develops unhealthy dietary habits.

The jokes are set ablaze by the communion between audience and actor, and that’s why Beane’s script makes it obvious “Cannibal!” is a stage piece. The material doesn’t come alive without a theater full of people laughing at it.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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