Dr. Benjamin Spock must be spinning in his grave. Erasing decades of coddling, correct parenting in one fell swoop, “Shockheaded Peter” instead deals with naughty children by invoking the threat of hell fire, disfigurement and death, all of it doled out with the delicious malice of just deserts. Classic reprimands like “Don’t suck your thumb,” “Don’t play with matches,” “Eat your soup” and “Look where you’re going” have never carried such lethal follow-through as in this audaciously inventive Victorian nightmare, which makes for a bewitching brew of demented theatricality and eccentric musicality.
Returning to New York for a commercial run at the Little Shubert after a sold-out limited engagement in 1999, the London cult hit is being performed again by its creators and by the Tiger Lillies, a wryly seedy cabaret-punk musical trio led by falsetto-voiced Martyn Jacques, who composed the music and adapted the lyrics from Heinrich Hoffman’s gruesome nursery rhymes.
First printed in 1845, “Struwwelpeter” was written and illustrated by German medic Hoffman in response to his dissatisfaction with available picture books for his 3-year-old son. Designed to terrify tykes into good behavior, its grim cautionary tales outline the horrific fates that await unruly, disobedient children, adopting a pitch-black pedagogy that places the doctor in the same parenting league as Joan Crawford and Sybil’s mother.
As enacted in the supremely stylish Cultural Industry production, the stories summon comparison to the dark kid lit of Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl, while their visual correlations run from Edward Gorey to the films of Tim Burton, Tod Browning, David Cronenberg, F.W. Murnau and German expressionist classics like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”
This is definitely not for the under-10 set, but less impressionable older kids and adults with a taste for flamboyant Grand Guignol should fall under the grotesque spell of this unique show, co-directed with playful lugubriousness by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott.
Orchestrating the proceedings with shabby elegance and arch hauteur is Julian Bleach as a ghoulish emcee-cum-carnival barker, who disdainfully scans the audience in a protracted silence before proclaiming, “I am the greatest actor that has ever existed.” Assisting in the storytelling is Tiger Lillies frontman and accordionist Jacques, hauled like a puppet out of a trapdoor in the stage to serve as a grimacing balladeer.
Conjuring images from within “the gravy-dark night cellar of our mind,” the pair narrate the title tale of Shockheaded Peter, a hideous child with long talons and a troll-like coif. He’s born to beautiful, prosperous parents, whose horror at the sight of their long-desired offspring prompts them to bury him under the floorboards. While the parents undergo their own transformation before becoming tenderly reacquainted with their monster spawn, the show catalogs a colorful assortment of wicked kids.
These include Cruel Frederick, whose penchant for torturing animals earns him a fatal bite; chubby Augustus, who starves to death after refusing to eat his soup; foolish Harriet, whose insistence on toying with matches gets her barbecued while her pet pussycat looks on; Conrad, who bleeds to death after his obstinate thumb-sucking causes the scissor man to amputate the offending digits; a trio of bully boys whose heads are smashed by way of chastisement; and Fidgety Phil, whose restlessness at the dinner table ends with a tumble, impaling him on the silverware.
Given spirited backing from Adrian Stout on double bass and Adrian Huge on drums (not to mention pots and pans), Jacques’ beguiling songs start as mournful music-hall dirges and build into a wildly exuberant, Latin/Gypsy flavor that recalls 1990s French hipsters Les Negresses Vertes.
Veering between disapproving deadpan and rueful sympathy, Jacques savors the bleak outcome of each ditty with sinister glee, often lingering with relish over the final words “dead” or “death.” Some numbers, like “Flying Robert,” a poignant account of a boy too senseless to get in out of the wind and rain, have a haunting, poetic air.
While the small ensemble has no weak elements, Bleach is the commanding presence that weaves the vignettes together, his reedy physicality paired with a pompous thespian arrogance: “I am a classically trained actooooor, I’ll have you know!” he hisses at the aud, disgusted by the heedless laughter directed at his grave lessons. A swift recitation of the opening soliloquy from “Richard III,” complete with hump and exaggerated limp, hilariously conveys his feeling that he was meant for a greater theatrical calling.
In addition to playing instruments, the actors operate puppets that stand in for the ill-fated children. The most elaborate marionette sequence is “The Story of the Man That Went out Shooting,” a fable about a hare that turns a hunter’s gun on him, killing the man and his wife before progressing to animal infanticide and suicide. Charlton Heston will not be optioning film rights.
Making a virtue of their low-tech, cardboardy designs, Crouch and Graeme Gilmour (who also performs) have crafted a magical set that suggests a Victorian pop-up picture book or toy theater, with its maze of doors, windows and trapdoors all vigorously populated by the busy cast. A triple proscenium allows for some deft toying with perspective within the boxed-in stage.
Kevin Pollard’s costumes have a dusty tattiness that fits with the cultivated artifice of the overall scheme, while Jon Linstrum’s eerie lighting scheme floods the theater with ghastly shadows. Some of Jacques’ lyrics could be clearer, but the textured sound design by Mic Pool and Ronald Higham enhances the ominous mood with its dense layering of clanking, creaking noise.