Sweet Songs and Sour Notes | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Sweet Songs and Sour Notes

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Cannibal! The Musical!

Great Beast Theater
at ImprovOlympic

Alferd Packer, the only member of his six-man mining expedition to emerge from a trek through the Colorado Rockies in 1883, was the last person to be tried for cannibalism on American soil. With a bit of tweaking, Trey Parker has transformed Packer into a noble fool with noble intentions, ripe material for a musical.

Parker is best known for his ongoing work on South Park, the profane Comedy Central animated series he created with Matt Stone. But he ought to be recognized for his music. Parker--who for a time studied musical theater at Berklee College of Music--received an Oscar nomination for "Blame Canada" from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. The original 1996 film version of Cannibal! The Musical! introduced itself as a long-lost Rodgers and Hammerstein show, and this was a bald-faced lie not so far from the truth.

Cannibal! The Musical! bursts with love for the musical form. Parker pays homage to Rodgers and Hammerstein with "This Side of Me," a tender solo delivered by Polly Pry, the hard-nosed reporter who falls for Packer's soft-spoken charm and fights for his release. The staccato delivery of "The Trapper Song" (sung by Packer's archnemesis Frenchy Cabazon) is straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan: "I wake up muddy / And go to bed bloody / 'Cause I'm a trappin' man." And Parker's lyrics are insanely catchy. Even the musical low point, "Let's Build a Snowman," a tune about staying brave, bores straight into the pleasure centers of your brain.

Still, this Cannibal! The Musical! doesn't quite work onstage. With only seven songs and three reprises, there really isn't enough music to go around--a weakness the film masked with a steady stream of sight gags and eye-popping visuals. Parker made the film for less than $200,000, but it didn't look cheap. Great Beast's staging of Cannibal! does, and for reasons beyond the tacky props and half-finished costumes. Cheapness is suggested by the lack of effort made to translate the film to the stage. There are way too many scene changes, and every time the lights go dim (there are almost two dozen blackouts), the energy gets sucked out of the room. And it's puzzling why a production that cut at least 20 minutes of scenes from the movie runs 20 minutes longer than it.

Cannibal! The Musical! works best when directors Talon Beeson and Troy Coleman play fast and loose with the film script. They've made additions that are funnier than anything in the film: Polly Pry vainly singing her solo through intermission; Packer's video image mocking him as he serenades his horse. The decision to stage the barroom brawl at the ImprovOlympic's actual bar might have been a no-brainer, but it's a pretty inventive use of theater space.

Some of the 20 performers--especially Jeff Thompson as Packer and Christian Breecher as overzealous miner Shannon Bell--have crisp, beautiful singing voices. But their comic timing is completely out of whack, and most appear to have no idea what the production is about. There's a strange push-pull dynamic to it, with every element of absolute reverence (Parker claims he intended the show first and foremost as a tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein and to the musical) canceled out by every element of absolute irreverence. Cannibal! The Musical! needs tighter staging, serious editing, and a healthy dose of high camp. Great Beast's waffling makes for a very murky, ultimately pointless production.

Tetherball: A Song in Three Acts

Infamous Commonwealth Theatre
at the Viaduct Theater

Music also figures prominently in the Infamous Commonwealth Theatre's inaugural production, though mostly as a point of departure rather than as narrative backbone. The troupe commissioned three playwrights to develop one-act plays based on singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco's song "Angry Anymore," and Tetherball: A Song in Three Acts is the result. DiFranco's song--which is played in a loop before the curtain opens and throughout the intermission--is about a young woman coming to grips with her parents' failed marriage. The one-acts take divergent paths from this source.

Kevin Rich's simple two-person Relationship Play offers the most literal interpretation of the song, but not much in the way of depth. Rich's script feels like a stiff academic treatise on gender studies, and the gimmick he borrows from Caryl Churchill--hammering home the idea of gender dysphoria by flip-flopping the man and woman's gender identities--gets in the way of true character development. Todd Kreisman's Offbeats--about a group of off-duty police officers and a would-be criminal whiling away their time at a neighborhood bar--pays more attention to narrative concerns. Each of the four patrons takes a turn spinning a yarn, and the spacious confines of the Viaduct allow these stories to spread out and really breathe. In style, Offbeats is a lot like Relationship Play, but it's much more insightful.

But the most complete, pitch-perfect package is Gina Lucita Monreal's TreeGirl, which follows the intermission. Monreal spins the song lyric "But we can learn like the trees / How to bend how to sway" into a fascinating examination of one woman's attempts to pick up the pieces of her life after a tragedy. Director Genevieve Hurst's two actors are absolutely superb--Daren Flam as a tree that comes to life in the woman's imagination and shepherds her through her darkest hours, and Jen Hines as the mournful protagonist. From the get-go, her openhearted performance connects directly with the audience.

Music is everywhere in TreeGirl, from the pop standards that anchor the fantasy to reality to the playful cadence of Monreal's language: the protagonist describes her waking dreams as "the hibernation station of my imagination." Music is at the play's center, contained in the rhythmic pounding of the characters' hearts and the simple poetry of ordinary lives.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Hall.

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