"Shockheaded Peter" is both the silliest and the most sinister show in town. It is also, as it happens, one of the smartest

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


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.


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.