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Cannibal! The Musical offers holiday season message wrapped in a comedy package

Pemberton Secondary School stages the production at the Maury Young Arts Centre from Dec. 12 to 15

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A lot of students in Renata Zablotney's Pemberton Secondary School theatre program really wanted to see Book of Mormon when the Broadway play made a tour stop in Vancouver.

Unfortunately, the Tony-award-winning musical comedy—written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the masterminds behind South Park—was very not safe for work (or, in this case, school).

So, Zablotney came up with the next best thing and chose Stone and Parker's little-known production Cannibal! The Musical for their winter play. "I would say very much this is more geared towards adults and young adults," Zablotney says. "Some of the humour might slip past some of the kids, but there's a lot of slapstick comedy."

The play tells the story of Alferd Packer who ends up leading an expedition of miners travelling from Utah to Colorado though he's woefully unqualified for the job. When things go terribly wrong, the group is forced to resort to cannibalism.

While it's being staged in December, there's not much more than snow tying it to the holiday season. "We've had some pushback because we're doing this play in December, they wanted more of a Christmas theme," says Jesse Abbott, who's playing Packer. "I just don't think it's necessary to do something that's holiday-themed to get a good message across."

This production marks Abbott's 13th with the school. "Cannibal has been a really fun experience," she says. "Alferd Packer is a funny character. The other characters are more zany, but he's insecure and gets roped into all these things."

Ella Macdonald's character, Swan, is one of those zany characters. "Swan is really upbeat and positive throughout the entire play," Macdonald says. "He has this personality that it's important to stay positive and work together and enjoy your time together."

Macdonald, who's also in Grade 12, says the role was an easy fit for her. "Personally, I relate a lot with the character," she says, explaining they share a sunny outlook. "He's the only one who doesn't end up being a cannibal."

Swan also provides the sole seasonal moment in the production with the song "Let's Build a Snowman."

"The song is probably the most fun—even though it's the most stressful part of playing the character," she says. "It's fun to have a solo scene."

In total, there are 21 students acting in the play, though some are double cast for the production's four-night run at the Maury Young Arts Centre.

"It is tough to fill seats (for multiple nights), but I'm optimistic because we're doing this through December," Zablotney says. "We get a lot of tourists coming in."

With opening night set for Dec. 12, the cast is nearly ready.

"I'm playing Noon all four nights," says Evan Mares, describing his character as the youngest of the miners. "There are a couple of parts there that are uncomfortable, but I've gotten better at doing them."

Likewise, Keiran Nott, who plays the miner Bell, says singing with others has been a challenge in this production. That character connects back to Parker and Stone's apparent interest in the Mormon faith; he's a Mormon priest. "(He's) preachy about God as their saviour, but trying to help the other people get along," Nott says.

While the show might not be Christmas-themed, in the end, it sends out a good message for the season.

"There is cannibalism and murder and violence in songs in this production," Abbott says. "(But) the message of the story is very much to stay close to your friends, take care of each other, don't manipulate."

Cannibal! The Musical runs at the Maury Young Arts Centre from Dec. 12 to 15 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 at the door or in advance at Pemberton Secondary School.

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