Audience eats up ‘Cannibal!’

Friday, February 11, 2005

Over the course of America’s legal history, hasty judicial procedure has led to the wrongful accusations, trials and sentences of innocent men and women for crimes they may have never committed in the first place.

Just ask Alferd Parker. In the 1870s, this gold prospector was canonized as the first and only American ever convicted of cannibalism — and in retrospect, he probably wasn’t even a cannibal. Just when the sordid and embarrassing tale was about to become another forgotten courtroom oddity, “South Park” creator Trey Parker decided to resurrect it as a musical.

Welcome to the grotesque, twisted and sidesplitting world of “Cannibal! The Musical,” a satirical take on people who eat people, and the latest offering at Brown’s Production Workshop. Originally scripted for film (the movie version made it to theaters in 1998), the show has now been adapted for the stage by Benji Samit ’06, who also directed and produced.

And what a show it is. A musical revue fashioned in the sentimental style of “Oklahoma!” but with a little more tongue in a little more cheek, “Cannibal!” tells the tale of Alferd (Christian Luening ’05), a gold digger whose American dream consists of owning a ranch where he and his beloved horse, Leanne, can soak up the rays of a “sun as warm as a baked potato.”

When he and a merry band of fellow miners embark on a quest for gold that will lead them from Utah to Colorado, they run into several obstacles, including an alienating and strangely competitive group of fur trappers, an American Indian tribe suffering an identity crisis and a Confederate Cyclops.

It’s an ominous road, and by the time the play has reached its only possible conclusion, the stage has been drenched in enough blood to supply several more remakes of Carrie.

PW’s production is not to be missed for several reasons. Parker’s punchy, slapstick script calls for an ensemble that really works together. Director Samit’s cast features memorable turns from Adam Mazer ’08 as Indian Chief, who will not tolerate any non-member of his tribe; Cody Campanie ’08 as the sexually repressed Swan; and Douglas Benedicto ’08 as the trapper leader.

The performance of the evening surely belongs to Luening, however, whose characterization of the tried man-eater brings both Chris Farley’s endearing lumpishness and Mel Brooks’ skilled timing to mind. The audience nearly lost it completely when Benedicto joined Luening onstage for a balletic dream sequence, complete with leotard and disturbing hand motions.

Putting the frenzy together onstage must have been a daunting task, but Samit and his large crew don’t let on — the staging is clean, original and quite professional-looking. Of particular note, the lighting by Spencer Collins ’05 and set design by Louisa Bukiet ’08 are both equally imaginative.

If there is anything wrong with the production, in fact, it is probably the show’s length. At approximately an hour and a half, it’s too short. By the time the last collarbone is sucked dry, the audience can only hope there will be room for dessert.

“Cannibal! The Musical” runs in the Production Workshop’s downstairs space between Feb. 11 and Feb. 14.