The histrionic history of Colorado’s most famous cannibal

Filmmaker Stan Brakhage, right, in a still from the film version.
Gary Zeidner | Boulder Weekly

The University of Colorado Boulder boasts many distinguished alumni. Famous scientists, authors and professional football players have all graduated from this hallowed institution. For many, including myself, the most noteworthy CU alumnus is by far Trey Parker, the co-creator of the subversive and long-running Comedy Central hit South Park. More recently, Parker helped bring to life the Broadway sensation The Book of Mormon. But before he killed Kenny for the first time — you bastard! — or sent Mormon missionaries to Africa for a laugh, Parker wrote and directed the musical comedy Cannibal! The Musical.

While still a student at CU, Parker, with the help of future South Park co-creator Matt Stone, decided to mine an odd bit of Colorado history for every ounce of humor no one thought it possessed. He took the tale of Alferd Packer, one of the few Americans ever to be officially accused of cannibalism, and turned it into, well, not exactly theatrical gold but certainly not theatrical pyrite. How about theatrical molybdenum?

In 1874, Packer led a group of prospectors from Utah to Colorado. Their destination was Breckenridge, where vast amounts of gold were reported to be just waiting for the taking. After the ill-advised decision to start crossing the unforgiving Rocky Mountains in the dead of winter, Packer and his group found themselves lost and snowbound.

Accounts differ, and recent forensic analysis even seems to indicate that Packer may have been completely innocent of the crimes for which he was ultimately convicted, but two facts remain unchallenged. The prospectors ran out of food, and some of them, possibly including Packer, went all Donner Party on the others. Packer survived the ordeal, stood trial multiple times and was eventually imprisoned. Fun fact: After his parole, he worked away his later years as a guard at The Denver Post.

Cannibal! The Musical tells Packer’s story from Parker’s uniquely mad perspective. Characters burst into song at a moment’s notice, and the lyrics of those songs more often than not border on the absurd. The members of the prospecting party anachronistically put each other in “time out” when they become too surly. The only love interest is Packer’s horse, Liane. And the helpful Indians they meet along the way are played by Japanese actors in the original film version of the musical and are portrayed as a tribe of flaming homosexuals in the Next Pony production currently at the Bug Theatre in Denver.

One of the most interesting aspects of Cannibal! The Musical is the historical insight it gives not into Packer’s misadventure but into the evolution of Parker as an artist. Cannibal! showcases the influences of Mel Brooks, Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers. It also foreshadows many of the comedic tricks-of-the-trade that Parker would later incorporate into his more well-known works, including juvenile, often gross-out humor, the inclusion of Broadway-style show tunes and the use of neologisms, specifically the nebulously defined and multi-linguistically utilized “shpadoinkle.”

For those who embrace the amateurish charm of the original film, Next Pony’s Cannibal! The Musical is a must-see. This stage version is virtually a scene-for-scene remake of the movie. As in the original, the cast shows itself to be a group of dedicated, excited but at best marginally trained actors. The costume and set design is slapdash, and the special effects are purposefully hokey.

If you’re looking for a polished production, however, steer far wide of this Cannibal! It’s one thing to embrace the low-rent nature of the show, but it’s another when many of the cast fail to project their spoken or sung lines beyond the first few rows. And if you know you’re presenting a slapdash production, for the love of Dionysus please don’t protract it unnecessarily with more scene changes than a top-line Vegas revue.

If you’re a Parker completist and haven’t yet experienced Cannibal! The Musical then you owe it to yourself to get down to the Bug before the current run closes. Some will leave with sides a-achin’ while others will simply just leave. And that is the very definition of “craptabulous.”

Cannibal! The Musical plays through Dec. 1 at the Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo St., Denver. Tickets are $15. For information, call 303-477-9984 or visit