February 23, 2005, Wednesday


Nasty Surprises for Bad Children (and Grown-Ups, Too)

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Julian Bleach in "Shockheaded Peter," which includes vignettes about thumb-suckers losing thumbs and picky eaters turning into skeletons.


It all begins with the sound of meandering footsteps, ominous but curiously clumsy, as if something wicked had lost its way. In the teasing opening seconds of the sensational - in all senses of the word - "Shockheaded Peter," you're likely to experience that mixed thrill that is part giggle and part goose flesh, the kind that descends when you hear a sudden thud in a dark and quiet house. You suspect that whatever lurks behind the red velvet curtains of the Little Shubert Theater, where "Shockheaded Peter" opened last night, is either truly fearsome or really ridiculous. Trust your instincts: "Shockheaded Peter" is, oh, so deliciously, both.

Therein lies the genius of this one-of-a-kind "nasty picture book" of a musical, in which badly behaved Victorian tots come to ghastly ends. A spiky, subversive riff on Heinrich Hoffmann's "Struwwelpeter," a droll collection of grisly bedtime stories from the mid-19th century, "Shockheaded Peter" is both the silliest and the most sinister show in town. It is also, as it happens, one of the smartest.

Directed with unstinting imagination and brazen assurance by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, and featuring bizarrely beautiful songs by Martyn Jacques, "Shockheaded Peter" manages to wallow in and tear apart our enduring appetite for scaring ourselves and our children. And while its medium is the moldy conventions of Victorian melodramas and peep shows, this British import makes contemporary exercises in self-spoofing horror like Wes Craven's "Scream" movies look like, well, child's play.

"Shockheaded Peter" was first seen in New York in a limited engagement at the New Victory Theater five years ago. (It has since been staged several times in London, where it picked up an Olivier Award for best entertainment in 2002.) The show returns to Manhattan in the less intimate Little Shubert, but it definitely expands in all the right ways to fill its new space. It feels bigger, tighter and even more audacious in its calculated creakiness.

For few shows have ever been as good at being bad as "Shockheaded Peter" is. Its admonitory vignettes, in which thumb-suckers lose their thumbs and picky eaters turn into skeletons, are overseen by a cadaverous master of ceremonies who wants nothing more than to frighten his audience into submission. But as portrayed by Julian Bleach, this seedy, hatchet-faced ghoul brings to mind Charles Dickens's accounts of inept grandstanding actors who manage to sabotage every big moment.

Stooping to fit into Mr. Crouch and Graeme Gilmour's cramped, multi-doored diorama of a set, Mr. Bleach is a master of miscues and mangled timing. His baleful stares into the audience always last a few seconds too long; his grand gothic postures are a deflating fraction off-center; his creepy spiels on "the darkest recesses of the human imagination" are too grandly intoned to be taken seriously.

Or are they? As exaggerated as he is, Mr. Bleach's M.C. also conveys the genuine nastiness of the power wielded by grown-ups who enjoy terrifying children "for their own good" (a type of character that was another specialty of Dickens). Like another, more famous M.C., the one who presides over a Weimar-era nightclub in the musical "Cabaret," this one embodies the most prurient instincts of his age. He also somehow summons every paddle-wielding gym instructor and hellfire-conjuring disciplinarian from your youth, repackaged in Grand Guignol drag: a figure of sport, yes, but still potent enough to make you shiver.

Then there is the music, performed by the trio Tiger Lillies and led by Mr. Jacques, who plays a mournful accordion and sings of cruel deaths in a sweet but strident countertenor. The songs feature gloatingly gruesome lyrics, adapted from Hoffmann's stories, and the Kabuki-faced, androgynous Mr. Jacques delivers them with a relish that turns demonic whenever the word dead crops up. (He keeps repeating it, like a record stuck in a groove.)

Like Mr. Bleach, Mr. Jacques is a virtuoso of the anticlimax. He overextends his songs' grim conclusions to the point of absurdity. Yet the music, which captures the flavor of lurid Victorian street ballads without ever merely imitating them, gets under your skin and stays there. (Mr. Jacques's singing "snip, snip, the scissors go" will not leave my mind.)

The same double-edged sensibility infuses every detail of "Shockheaded Peter": the blatantly fake two-dimensional scenery, the shabby period costumes (by Kevin Pollard), the sepulchral lighting (by Jon Linstrum), the pasteboard flames and waves that consume foolish girls and boys, and the exquisite, battered-looking puppets that pass through in a stumbling parade of the doomed. And the entire 10-member ensemble, wearing harsh Dr. Caligari-style makeup, is of a perfect piece with the stylized environment.

Children reared on Lemony Snicket books and Tim Burton movies are unlikely to experience nightmares because they went to "Shockheaded Peter." Their parents are another matter. The title narrative that frames the other stories in the show is about a couple who dispose of an unseemly infant who doesn't match their sweet Victorian home.

The husband and wife's subsequent slide into dementia becomes a sneaky allegory of repression that only grown-ups can fully appreciate. The attendant images, for all their obvious artificiality, are as contaminating as guilty dreams. Let me just say that your first impulse, on returning home from the Little Shubert, will probably be to trim your fingernails.

SHOCKHEADED PETER: Created by Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Julian Crouch, Graeme Gilmour, Tamzin Griffin, Jo Pocock, Phelim McDermott, Michael Morris and the Tiger Lillies, Martyn Jacques, Adrian Huge and Adrian Stout. Directed by Mr. Crouch and Mr. McDermott. Music composed by Mr. Jacques; lyrics adapted from Heinrich Hoffmann by Mr. Jacques. Production design by Mr. Crouch and Mr. Gilmour. Costumes by Kevin Pollard; lighting by Jon Linstrum; sound by Mic Pool and Roland Higham; resident director, Heidi Miami Marshall; music supervisor, Shawn Gough; production manager, Aurora Productions; production stage manager, Elizabeth Burgess; company manager, R. Erin Craig; general management, John Corker and Dan Markley; associate producers, Ian Osborne, C. Wiesenfeld/M. McCarthy and Alisa E. Regas; executive producers, Linda Brumbach, Michael Morris, Christine Gettins; music director, Mr. Jacques. The Cultural Industry's production presented by Mr. Markley, Alan J. Schuster, Pomegranate Arts, Shockheaded Media Ltd., Harriet Newman Leve, Sonny Everett, Michael Skipper, True Love Productions, Dede Harris/Morton Swinsky. At the Little Shubert Theater, 422 West 42nd Street, Clinton. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

WITH: Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Graeme Gilmour, Tamzin Griffin, Rebekah Wild and the Tiger Lillies, Adrian Huge, Martyn Jacques and Adrian Stout.