Children's theatre like Shockheaded Peter doesn't come around every day. And if you see this musical adaptation of the 19th century children's stories of Heinrich Hoffman (under the original title Struwwelpeter, or Slovenly Peter) that has just returned to New York in an open-ended run at the Little Shubert, you'll understand why.
It's not because the show or the stories it tells are dark; the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales, similarly of German origin, are more sinister than the bowdlerized versions that many American children (and their parents) can recite from memory. Rather, it's that the show has filtered Hoffman's stories through a dramatic tradition that can't always support them, and has made them ghoulishly comic rather than cautionary.
That makes the resulting work more likely to appeal to adults, though more as a sick joke than enriching theatre. And while grown-ups and older children might well be entertained, especially with regards to the exponentially increasing body count of the stories' disobedient children, there's little here will actually appeal to youngsters. The show, which was last presented in New York at the New Victory in 1999, is so flooded with Grand Guignol artistry and the zombie-like cabaret stylings of the band The Tiger Lillies that Hoffman's work and message seem secondary.
It's The Tiger Lillies, led by composer Martyn Jacques, who have set Hoffman's tales to music and exercised some poetic license to generate as much blood and death as is possible in 100 intermissionless minutes. When the time comes to spin another devilish yarn - about such characters as a young boy who starves by refusing to eat his soup, or about a young thumb-sucker who pays a steep price for his obsession - out they trot with their instruments (an accordion, a bass, a drum kit) to wail their necrotic ballads.
Though an intriguing storytelling concept, the novelty wears off quickly, and the songs eventually all begin to sound the same. (Odd, as Hoffman's stories have very different tones and rhythms on the printed page.) That's when you're most thankful for directors Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, who have done an excellent job in preventing the visuals from stagnating: Each new tale has a distinctive look and style of presentation, and utilizes both human and puppet performers in increasingly inventive ways.
Tamzin Griffin, for example, re-enacts the story of a young girl who learns the hard way not to play with matches, using only the flame-colored petticoats of her dress (the costume designer is Kevin Pollard). "The Story of Cruel Frederick," about a boy who tortures everyone and everything he meets, is told almost entirely through suggested offstage violence. The show's title character is represented by a series of puppets, the last so large it nearly spans the stage, symbolizing the increasing guilt his parents feel after shunning him because of his curious appearance.
This story provides the evening's frame, and is introduced by "the greatest actor that has ever existed" (Julian Bleach), who takes melodrama to extremes unheard of even in Victorian theatre. "Such things are not for the incontinent," he warns while introducing the tales, and while that may be fine advice for young readers of Hoffman's original stories, the faint of heart needn't worry about visiting this particular show. The creators have no actual interest in scaring anyone.
That's the problem with Shockheaded Peter: It's too tame, too much about a performing style instead of content, and too much in its own head to shock anyone. It might, of course, be a fun night out for college kids, or for aspiring directors, as the show lacks little in creativity. And it's great for its performers - also including Anthony Cairns, Graeme Gilmour, Rebekah Wild, Luther Creek, and Paul Kandel - who all contribute handsomely to the gruesome, hellish world that has been devised for the show. (Crouch and Gilmour are billed as the production designers.)
But when Bleach reappears at evening's end to chide the audience for having missed the message he so diligently worked into the proceedings, the moment is played strictly for laughs. While the sight of Bleach, dressed in a hopelessly exaggerated baby costume screaming at the audience is undeniably amusing, it - like too much of Shockheaded Peter - is drenched in exactly the kind of pandering that Hoffman was originally railing against.