It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely master of the American musical than Trey Parker. As one of the parties responsible for South Park, the cartoonist is associated more with the sound of farting than the sound of music. Even though 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was a weirdly smart musical, it was widely assumed that the veteran Hollywood composer who shared the songwriting credits with Parker was behind the movie’s astute score.
But with the first stage production of Parker’s 1993 film, Cannibal! The Musical, his place in the Gershwin-Porter pantheon is secure. Well, maybe not exactly. But Parker demonstrates that he’s a more-than-competent composer—an ironist who’s created the kind of loving parody that only a closeted Broadway aficionado could pull off.
Based (very loosely) on the true story of Alferd Packer, a miner convicted of killing and eating several of his colleagues during an 1883 trek through the Rockies, the story plays starvation, murder, bestiality, and racism for laughs—and darn good ones, at that.
Packer narrates the tale in a series of flashbacks, after he’s been brought to small-town justice and is granting jailhouse interviews to a smitten reporter named Polly Pry. While guiding a half-dozen greedy but sweet-natured gold prospectors from Utah to his native “Colorado territory,” the unwoodsmanly Packer leads the group to its destruction. Before reaching their gruesome end, the miners experience a series of hilariously sent-up clichés of adversity: three Teutonic trappers who taunt the animal-loving protagonists with gory descriptions of their kills; a grimacing Indian chief who speaks with a cartoonish Japanese accent; and, naturally, the feuding among the cockeyed optimist, the chronic liar, and the other deliberately stock personality types in the mining party.
But the plot is mostly an excuse for chipper sing-alongs like “Hang the Bastard” (“Hang him well/Send his sorry soul to hell”) and ballads like “When I Was on Top of You” and Polly Pry’s touching “This Side of Me” (“Perhaps I’m not the cold bitch/I pretended to be”). The live production, directed by Joan Eileen Murray, hews pretty faithfully to the movie, though she shaves off 25 minutes by stepping up the pace and cutting the lingering mountain shots. Murray adds several well-executed nods to West Side Story, Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” and The Matrix, as well as to South Park, which didn’t yet exist when Parker made Cannibal! The only disappointment comes during “The Trapper Song,” sung by Frenchy (Rob McDonald), who can’t enunciate the rapid-fire barrage of mock Gilbert & Sullivan couplets (“I wake up muddy/And I go to bed bloody/’Cause I’m a trappin’ man”).
There’s a happy ending, of sorts. Not to spoil the surprise, but let’s just say there’s more to come after the chorus line’s apparent finale: “When his body stops jerking, we’ll know/It’s the end of him and the end of the show!”
A less happy ending (or beginning, or middle) is found in Girlfriend, a two-character musical based on the 1991 Matthew Sweet album of the same name. Minus the music, this would be a fairly compelling one-act play. Two high school seniors in a small Nebraska town, the gay-and-out Will (playwright Todd Almond) and the curious but closeted football star Mike (Dominic Bogart), wrestle with their friendship, their mutual attraction, and the limited movie selection at the local drive-in. (The two, though, never address the fact they’re the oldest-looking “teenagers” since Dawson’s Creek.) Particularly deft is Almond’s handling of closeted language. Unfortunately, the reason for the music’s presence in the play is as opaque as Will’s lilting diction is transparent. Fifteen songs about generic adolescent longing do not make for convincing musical theater. The main pleasure of Matthew Sweet’s album is its big-rock production—soaring guitars, thundering drums, studio-perfect harmonies. Presented on the Duplex’s tiny stage, with a restrained piano trio, the music becomes limp and affectless, the songs confusing the story by forcing lyrics to be used as unlikely lines. And more confusion is the last thing either of these boys needs.