Top photo by Dahlia Katz
Despite the names on the marquee, Trey Parker’s Cannibal! The Musical is not the Book of Mormon, nor is it Evil Dead: The Musical. The new production – on now at the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto – is an adaptation of the 1993 Trey Parker film of the same name, and while the title would suggest a level of violence and tastelessness seldom seen onstage, the reality is that Cannibal never cuts loose the way you’re expecting it to based on the South Park and Evil Dead pedigree.
Fortunately, the show doesn’t need to shock to entertain, which may be the most pleasant surprise of all. Though it’s not as deliriously funny as you might hope, Cannibal! The Musical is an excellent display of stagecraft, a great musical with terrific song and dance numbers, a game cast, and wonderful lighting and scenery that moves briskly for its entire runtime. If you’re in the mood for dinner and a show, you could do a lot worse than Cannibal.
Cannibal tells the semi-true tale of Alferd Packer (Liam Tobin), a man aimlessly wandering through life with his beloved horse Liane. Alferd is recruited to lead a group of five miners on an expedition from Utah into Colorado in search of gold, a decision that seems foolhardy in the moment and becomes more so as the play progresses. The show opens during Packer’s trial for cannibalism so we know the expedition is doomed, but there is some mystery as to how it got that way.
It eventually becomes clear that Cannibal is about cannibalism in the Alive sense rather than the Hannibal sense, insofar as people get eaten for sustenance when it’s freezing and there’s not much else around. The results are less sensationalistic, but it gives the actors more room to work within the narrative.
That’s ultimately to the show’s benefit. With the exception of Tobin, the entire cast is pulling triple and quadruple duty filling out a roster of recurring characters that includes a group of trappers, some overly judicious townsfolk, and a tall Confederate gentleman short an eyeball, and the ensemble is exceptional. Cannibal makes you care about the characters before they become dinner, holding your attention with warmth as readily as lewdness. Tim Porter is particularly charming as George Noon, a youth with appropriately teenage concerns, while Mike ‘Nug’ Nahrgang gets considerable mileage as Miller, the team’s surly but loveable curmudgeon.
If there’s a flaw, it’s only that the show is a bit of a boys club, which is a problem with the script rather than the production. Elicia MacKenzie just doesn’t get a lot to do as the reporter investigating the tale, but she makes the most of the limited time she has.
Otherwise, it’s a lot of fun to watch these people sing and dance across the stage, and there’s no weak link in the cast or the production. The choreography is incredible, the actors trust one another with great verbal and physical timing, and the set and lighting successfully evoke rugged mountain vistas in a variety of sunset hues.
The show isn’t perfect. Some of the pop culture references work better than others and Cannibal lacks a show-stopping crescendo. Cannibal is silly and absurd in the way all musicals are silly and absurd, but the structure is traditional and it doesn’t have the extra gear that you’d think would be warranted for a comedy about the consumption of human flesh. It makes the proceedings feel restrained bordering on subtle, with humor that is dark rather than overt.
However, the show can be hilarious within those confines, especially if you happen to enjoy that kind of humor (I do). You might not laugh at every punchline, but you’ll often smile a few moments later once you realize just how deliciously twisted the concept actually is, as with a Native American Chief that avoids offensive stereotypes by opting for an entirely different and unrelated set of offensive stereotypes. Cannibal is self-aware and intelligent, but no one is waiting for a laugh track so some of the best lines may slip by unnoticed.
It should also be noted that while there’s probably a more violent version of the show somewhere in the script, the Mirvish production doesn’t find it. There’s no splatter zone, nor is there much in the way of gore onstage. There are a handful of effects that will make the audience squirm – including one moment that makes you rethink what it means to take someone inside you – but for the most part it’s relatively tame. Cannibal isn’t for kids, but aside from that squeamish audiences shouldn’t find much to object to.
Cannibal may not be as audacious as other shows, but it doesn’t need to be when everything is done with such a high degree of professionalism. The show is always entertaining and never dull, making up for its lack of bombast with admirable energy and heart. It’s everything you could reasonably want from a musical, even if it’s not the splatterfest you might have been expecting.