They call it a “musical pandemonium,” which is stretching a point. But if this through-composed adaptation of the children’s picture book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, “The Wolves in the Walls,” doesn’t have quite the anarchic spirit of helmer-designer Julian Crouch’s best-known creation, “Shockheaded Peter,” it does have a fertile energy of its own. As a junior introduction to the dark side of musical theater, it’s a lot of grisly fun and will be welcomed by younger Stateside audiences when it crosses the pond to tour in 2007.
Vicky Featherstone, head of the new National Theater of Scotland, struck on the idea of staging the book while reading it to her eldest son. At only 4, he was captivated by an all-too-believable tale of young Lucy whose protests about the wolves living in the walls of her family’s new house go unheard until the beasts decide to move in. When the tables are turned and the family is forced to live at the bottom of the garden, it falls on Lucy to put matters right.
In the short book’s 50 pages, McKean and Gaiman — whose name is associated with forthcoming movies “Beowulf,” “Coraline,” “Stardust” and “Books of Magic” — create a creepy, quirky picture that captures something of the anxiety, powerlessness and dark imagination of childhood. All odd angles and spooky shadows, it has a haunting quality that belies the simplicity of the story and repays repeated readings.
The production tunes in well to the blend of humor and horror, setting the genial but self-absorbed family figures — Iain Johnstone’s tuba-playing father, Cora Bissett’s jam-making mother and Ryan Fletcher’s game-playing big brother (complete with Space Invaders sweater) — against the scraggy, unkempt wolves, a dangly-limbed pack of sack-cloth puppets, more scary in their lawlessness than their bite. Only the radiant smile of Frances Thorburn’s Lucy reassures us that everything will be all right.
As designer, Crouch picks up on the cut-and-paste style and distinctive color palate of McKean’s artwork, building a number of ingenious variations on the domestic interior in which dimensions and perspectives are routinely out of kilter. When the girl senses the walls closing in on her, they do just that: three cardboard cut-outs creeping up when her back is turned like wayward components in a toy theater.
There’s a lovably homemade quality to all of this (Crouch’s specialty as designer is making entire sets from Scotch tape), but that’s not to underestimate the production’s technical sophistication. Pencil in hand, Thorburn leads us gently into the show by appearing to draw on the lowered curtain in front of her, quickly filling it with huge childish sketches of wolves with the help of some computer wizardry. The arrival of the animals is anticipated by an ominous rumbling that rattles our seats, chilling glimpses of shadow-puppet silhouettes and projections of fearsome lupine eyes.
Nick Powell’s score is influenced by everything from madrigals to electronica, heavy rock, Michael Nyman and George Gershwin. Melodically, though, it’s short on killer tunes and, lyrically, rather too faithful to the book to create memorable, stand-alone songs. In that sense, it’s more operatic in form, prioritizing the telling of the story over show-stopping numbers.
This means there’s less musical flamboyance than in “Shockheaded Peter,” which was driven by the extraordinary talents of the Tiger Lilies and, in a later version, David Thomas of Pere Ubu. But that’s not to diminish the child-friendly qualities of this entertaining show.