In the 1870s, a gold miner named Alfred Packer was the first man charged in the U.S. with the heinous act of cannibalism. His controversial retelling of the crimes—murdering five other miners and partially ravaging their flesh—have remained a mystery. Packer’s version—that he left them here and there as he ate the men—didn’t match up with the findings of a Harper Weekly employee who discovered remains alongside a Colorado riverbank. The story piqued the interest of a few college students in 1996: Trey Parker and Matt Stone—who would become the creators of the irreverent “South Park.” The friends wrote, directed and starred in “Cannibal: The Musical!”
Since the black comedy’s release, “Cannibal!” has become a cult classic—on film and stages nationwide. The rights are released for theatre companies yet there is no real stage script to go by; it’s up to the companies to choose their own adventure, so to speak. In 2011 local comedy troupe Pineapple-Shaped Lamps rose to the occasion, and wrote and produced it for local audiences for the first time. Seven years later, they’re reprising it, again with script by Rachel Helms—only this time they’re supersizing the show, just in time for the Halloween season.
We spoke with PSL founder and “Cannibal!” director Wes Brown about the musical, which opens this weekend.
encore (e): First off, what do you love most about “Cannibal!”? Why reprise it?
Wesley Brown (WB): Ever since we did the show back in 2011, I have been wanting to do it again. I’ve always had an appreciation for Trey Parker’s work with “South Park” and “The Book of Mormon.” The film version of “Cannibal” was made as a student film when they were in college, so the nature of how they were able to make this movie over spring break was also very inspiring to me as a film student as well as a director. Last time we did the show, we were limited on budget and space, so I’ve been wanting to do it again, add more things to it, make it more complex than it was before.
e: The hurricane clearly put a dent in the opening. How did all of you overcome the obstacles in rehearsal and getting a show up and running?
WB: Shortly after the storm was over, I e-mailed the cast and crew. The most important thing was everyone was safe and well. I mentioned we were still planning on doing the show, but they should all worry about themselves and not feel pressured to come back if they couldn’t yet. What I received was an overwhelming response of positivity. Everyone just wanted to get back to work; they wanted to make the show happen regardless. Without all their positivity and hard work, it would have not been possible.
e: Aside from a new cast and different year, tell us how you’re approaching “Cannibal!” this time around?
WB: Since it is a stage adaptation, we revisited the script we wrote back in 2011. Rachel Helms is back as our writer for the show. We have learned a lot since then, so knowing more about what we can and can’t do, as well as what works better from a theatrical standpoint as opposed to film. We also wanted to add a full band, more songs, a larger cast, and more dancing!
e: Who’s the musical director and who will be playing in the band?
WB: The band is composed of Thaddaeus Freidline, William Matthews and Radford Carrick. Zeb Mims is helping with vocal direction and creating some of the music we had to build ourselves. Will Small was involved with music direction but had to quit post-Florence, but we are still grateful for his work.
e: Give us some insight into the music and how it carries the show—any fave songs?
WB: The show is filled with music, but it’s also about half dialogue as well. Unlike most musicals, there is a lot going on outside of the singing and dancing. So the cast must be quick and comedic with their line delivery, while still being able to snap in and out of the singing parts.
It’s hard for me to pick a favorite because the great thing about the show is it covers the spectrum of styles musicals offer. There is a lot to love about “Shpadoinkle Day,” which is a big theme of the show, but also “Shatterproof” —a ‘90s-style rap number.
e: What styles of dance did you guys lean on to bring it to life? I see Techmoja is involved in choreography…
WB: Just like with the music, it hits on many different tropes from musical theatre. [There are] classical show-stopping numbers with “Hang The Bastard,” as well as “Lianne” who is a ballet-dancing horse. Kevin Green [of Techmoja] has done an amazing job to match the absurdity of the show while still putting together fantastic dance numbers.
e: Who did you cast as whom and tell me a little about what they’re doing that’s impressing you most.
WB: The cast contains 14 people, some whom I have worked with before and some I met for the first time at auditions. It’s a nice mixture of extremely talented people. The cool thing is, although it’s the story of Alfred Packer (Patrick Basquill), the rest of the cast is featured evenly. It’s very much an ensemble show, and every cast member gets some great moments. Patrick plays Packer with a great level of innocence and realism that really play into the absurdity of the show. Ashley Strand as French Cabazon, the villainous trapper, gives an amazing performance. Seeing him and Patrick play off each other is a blast. Katie Joy Anderson as Polly Pry, the go-getting reporter, plays the part with a great deal of wit and comedic timing, as she tries to get the true story out of Alfred.
e: Who’s doing set design and what will this world look like?
WB: Holly Cole Brown and Eddie Key designed the set. We are doing something a little different with the stage. We are building a thrust off the stage and doing a three-quarter round in the audience. The show lends itself to a lot of audience interaction and fourth-wall breaking. So putting the stage “into” the audience lets the actors really play with that aspect. It also makes it more exciting as a viewer.
e: What’s most impressive about the humor in this show, in your opinion?
WB: It can be extremely funny, and like with Trey Parker, very self-aware in what it is—a musical. It is not only satirical in nature toward classic musicals like “Oklahoma!” [which the show gives a nod to,] but it’s also genuinely good. What makes it so funny is in how the characters and world are portrayed. It’s very silly, but when taken seriously, the “realism” of the scenes and jokes hit even harder.
e: Fave scene?
WB: I might have to say “Shatterproof.” It’s hard to not love a bar fight/dance sequence that goes along with a ‘90s rap song. I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s worth the price of admission, for sure.
e: Fave part of rehearsal thus far?
WB: The cast has been unbelievable, especially coming back from the madness of the hurricane. They have brought more enthusiasm and energy to every rehearsal, regardless of everything else going on right now. It’s very apparent they care about the show, the characters they are portraying and how important it is for us to make it happen.
Now more than ever, people need a reason to laugh and escape for a few even just a few hours. I hope people come out and join us; they will have a “Shpadoinkle” time, for sure!