Trey Parker and Matt Stone, co-creators of “South Park,” “Team America: World Police” and “The Book of Mormon,” always have to dodge the same lame, lazy critique: that their work is stuck in juvenile detention.
Any serious consumer of the duo’s combative brand of foul-mouthed morality tales will know that there’s a genuine heart beating beneath all the fart jokes and sight gags. Their films and cartoons, have always contained some mildly surprising challenge to conventional wisdom. Those challenges may rarely be sophisticated, but they come from a good place.
That future trajectory is little evidenced in “Cannibal: The Musical,” a film Parker directed on a shoestring budget in 1993 about convicted cannibal Alfred Packer and his ill-fated journey into the Colorado wilderness. Drew McCabe, co-founder of Theatre Jugend and a longtime fan of Parker and Stone, opened his own stage adaptation of the cult film on the stage of Buffalo East last Thursday. And he did so with Parker’s permission and blessing: The “South Park” co-creator sent the company an email on opening night wishing the production well.
“Cannibal,” which could be seen as a precursor to Stone and Parker’s current Broadway hit “The Book of Mormon,” is about as good as a really poor episode of “South Park.” It seems more like a pale impression of the musical comedy master Mel Brooks, who knew better than anyone how to employ absurdism in the service of larger questions, than a unique expression of the direct comic style the pair would later develop.
We meet Alfred Packer (Jacob Albarella) as he awaits the verdict of his trial on charges of cannibalism. The musical then shows us how a group of fortune-seeking Mormons begged the inept Packer to guide them into the supposedly gold-rich Colorado territory.
Along the way, the bumbling crew of prospectors runs into trouble with a group of trappers, encounters a tribe of Japanese Indians, sings a smattering of completely unhinged numbers that have very little to do with the action and then, only because the title seems to demand it, runs out of food.
The music is flat-out awful, and it has lyrics to match. The opening number, “Shpadoinkle,” is based on the sophisticated comic idea that “shpadoinkle” – which means nothing – is a funny word to say. “When I Was On Top of You” seems to be a vaguely sexual ode to a horse. “Let’s Build a Snowman,” probably the funniest song in the show and given a fine performance by Steven Brachmann, is about building a snowman.
Anyone looking for some kind of logic to the organization of the show would be hard-pressed to find it. It’s meant to be absurd, and Theatre Jugend has embraced that sensibility in its production. Though opening night was mired with timing issues and the jokes (such as they were) didn’t seem to be coming across at quite the right angle, the company soldiered through the show admirably enough.
The big standout here is Albarella, whose comic timing and vocal talent puts him a few leagues ahead of the rest of the enthusiastic cast. He does about as much with his poorly sketched character as possible.
The material isn’t exactly on Theatre Jugend’s side, but the enthusiasm of this director and cast – which also includes Jenny Kulwicki, Dan Morris, Bryan Patrick Stoyle, Matt Kindly and Nick Lama – is contagious. With a little more time on its feet, “Cannibal” might yet turn into a palatable piece of theater.
review Two and a half stars (Out of four)
What: “Cannibal: The Musical”
When: Through March 30
Where: Buffalo East, 1410 Main St.
Tickets: $10 to $15