“Is it funny? Have you seen it before?”
“I need funny; I need to laugh.”
Variations on these two quotes were the refrain I heard while walking through the lobby of the Hannah Block USO/Community Arts Center on Friday night. Pineapple-Shaped Lamps (PSL), with support from Techmoja Dance Company, opened their revival of “Cannibal! The Musical” by Trey Parker. The show was a perfect respite for an audience in need of a laugh after Hurricane Florence (and Tropical Storm Michael, which delayed the show’s opening by 24 hours).
“Cannibal! The Musical” began as an independent film made by Trey Parker before he and Matt Stone achieved immortality with animated TV gold “South Park.” It tells the story of Alfred Parker, who admitted in 1874 to eating his crew of miners while on the search for gold during a harsh winter in Colorado. In 2001 the film saw a second life as a stage adaptation, which allows for a very broad and flexible translation to the stage. Early on as a theatre company, PSL staged “Cannibal!” at Browncoat Pub and Theatre. Seven years later, they have revived the show.
“I think this is the show Wes [Brown, PSL director,] wishes he had the budget for years ago,” I commented to my date.
Indeed, they have pulled out all the stops on the special effects and have a live band onstage, which is awesome. Seriously, Thaddaeus Freidline (keyboard), William Mathews (guitar/drums) and Radford Carrick (bass) are just as enchanted and entertained by the show as performers but bring an enormous punch to the experience. They provide the score for the singers, and a host of sound effects and musical commentaries. One includes ‘60s surf anthem, “Wipe Out,” right after the cast’s disastrous attempt at a river crossing.
There is far more elaborate scenery than the last production, too, and not just in costuming. The extensive blood splatter from the killing scenes is truly spectacular.
“Cannibal!” is a parody of the true story of Alfred Packer (Patrick Basquill), a miner who left Utah for Colorado with a group of fellow travelers: Israel Swan (Beau Mumford), Frank Miller (Derek West), George Noon (Anna Driscoll), Shannon Wilson Bell (Jay Zadeh), and James Humphrey (Jason Corder). Packer is the only one to return to civilization alive.
Basquill plays Packer as a sweet, dumb and trusting guy, who pretty much gets tricked into agreeing to lead the group through the mountains in winter. When it comes to wide-eyed confusion and trying to cover it up, Basquill has got Packer covered. Clearly, he is not leadership material and trying to keep things on track with his companions is not working.
Just the contest of wills between Frank Miller, a butcher-turned-miner, and his foils, aspiring Mormon priest Shannon Bell and the perennial shiny, happy Israel Swann is almost more than the expedition can handle. Actually, Mumford’s Swan is just that damn cheery. He’s not irritating (unless you are frozen, starving and looking at death sitting across from you—then he is really irritating), but he can endlessly find something good in every bad situation.
Take, for example, “Let’s Build A Snowman”—his big song in Act 2. The expedition is on the verge of death and his response it that they should build snowmen in the snow rather than complain about how cold and hungry they are. Mumford is so adorable, one can’t imagine it could get cuter, but then four snowman rockets join him on stage for a celebration of all things snow … and the humor meter almost breaks. Coupled with the saccharine sanctimoniousness of Zadeh’s aspiring Mormon Priest (he actually puts Miller in “time out”), they are a force of absurdity to be reckoned with for any cynical life-hardened miner.
Miller is in disbelief he has signed up to willingly travel with these people but has put his life and safety in their hands. It’s kind of like when the Muppets’ Rizzo the Rat realizes, somehow, Gonzo and Fozzie have become decision-makers. In Miller’s frustration and anger, he could be perceived as a bully, were it not for the appearance of the real bully: The trappers headed by Frenchy Cabazon (Ashley Strand). In real life, Cabazon was the one who reported the cannibalistic serial killer, Packer, to the sheriff. Costumer Allyson-Moore Mojica has put Strand in an ensemble, complete with silver sparkle faux-fur leg warmers. As an entrance, it’s pretty hard to top. Frenchy has to be menacing, as well as incredibly funny—the classic gang leader with a gang who don’t quite get what he’s saying and doing and frequently embarrass him. His gang, Devin DiMattia and Vanessa Lussier, are two thirds of the three stooges crossed with middle-school bullies. Their rendition of “The Trapper Song” must be seen to be understood.
Now, Alfred Packer has one true love in his life, Liane (Karen Pender), who he soliloquizes in “When I Was on Top of You”—a truly disturbing song, filled with double entendres that only works because Basquill plays it straight (pardon the pun). Frenchy disappears with Liane—maybe of her own free will, maybe not. It depends upon whose side of the story one believes, and it’s illustrated in a dream ballet a la “Oklahoma!” Yep. I’m not making that up.
Kevin Lee-y Green of Techmoja signed on as a producer and choreographer of the show. Green’s work has been shown all over the United States, but home is here and it is great to get to see his style and movements run free. Though there are multiple musical numbers with dance throughout the show, the dream ballet is such an over-the-top combination of dance, slapstick and almost Vaudeville-esque storytelling, it’s worth admission alone.
The ensemble are wonderful bringing to life Native Americans who might actually be Mormon missionaries, towns folk, snowmen, miners, and even a Confederate cyclops on stilts (played by Zeb Mims). The real-life Packer was a Union Army veteran, so it is a nice touch to have him confronted by an aging nemesis. Even former Wilmingtonian Ryan P.C. Trimble makes a surprise cameo as Lucky Larry—the most unlucky corpse in the mining camp.
But did I laugh? It seems to be the pertinent question. It was the question on everyone’s lips going in, and it has been the question since leaving the show. Yes. Yes, I laughed a lot—and like many people in the audience, I needed it.
It has been a tough time in Wilmington, and though we fared better from Florence than Florida did with Michael, there is still a lot to be done here and a lot to process psychologically. Laughter is a wonderful antidote. We all need a bit of release, a moment of hilarity and escape from our worries. Pineapple-Shaped Lamps delivers all it promises. They offer the perfect pick-me-up, even for a musical about cannibalism.