Anthony Cairns and Tamzin Griffin inShockheaded Peter(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Anthony Cairns and Tamzin Griffin in
Shockheaded Peter
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
If you think the Grimm fairy tales are creepy, you should see what old Dr. Heinrich Hoffman dreamed up for Struwwelpeter. That's the 1845 book of short stories on which Shockheaded Peter, now playing Off-Broadway at the Little Shubert, is based. Hoffman's twisted tales of wayward children meeting their doom is the stuff of nightmares -- and, occasionally, pretty good comedy. It all depends on your sensibilities.

In a series of tales told and enacted by the eight-member cast, kids such as Cruel Frederick, Fidgety Phil, and poor Johnny Head-in-Air unceremoniously lose limb or life, or both. While horrors such as death by fire or blood loss are most tastefully and artistically rendered here (huzzahs to costume designer Kevin Pollard), there are no cartoonish sound effects to show us that good Dr. Hoffman was just kidding. In fact, these eerie stories are made all the more so by The Tiger Lillies, the three-man band (bassist Adrian Stout, percussionist Adrian Huge, and singer/accordionist Martyn Jacques) that relates them in song. Jacques' persistent falsetto singing and Stout's underscoring in the show's quieter moments help create a bizarre, utterly unique tone that does little to indicate whether you should be terrified or delighted. Often, you'll find yourself feeling both emotions simultaneously, with your eyes popped and you jaw dropped.

Shockheaded Peter is definitely not for the squeamish. For example, here is what happens to little Conrad -- a lad who, unable to control his thumbsucking, gets a costly cure from the tailor:

Well Mama comes home and there
Conrad stands
And he looks quite sad as he shows
his hands Ha! Ha! Says Mama, I knew
he'd come
For naughty little suck a thumb
Snip snip, the scissors go
And Conrad cries out Oh! Oh! Oh!
Snip snip, they go so fast
And Conrad bleeds to death at last.
Ouch! But there is a counterpoint to this gruesome violence in the story of Shockheaded Peter, a freakish baby whose parents bury him under their floorboards because they can't stand to look at him. In between the episodes about foolish and wicked kiddies meeting untimely ends, our ghoulish Master of Ceremonies ("I am the greatest actor that has ever existed!" he proclaims early on) brings us back to the tale of Peter and shows us how his parents are suffering from guilt. This story gives the musical its gravity and its balance: It reminds us that parents also misbehave and then suffer for their bad deeds, providing a surprisingly redemptive and conciliatory ending.

None of this should be taken too seriously, yet there is a kind of beauty to be found in the Grand Guignol-style show that has been created by directors Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott and their U.K. troupe of performers and designers, most of whom are participating in this production. (Shockheaded Peter first visited NYC in 1999 at the New Victory.) They are all excellent as they act, puppeteer, play instruments, and dress up as giant cats when necessary. Of special note are Julian Bleach as the pompous M.C. and Anthony Cairns as Peter's distraught father.

Deliberate pacing and stylized movement makes the piece all the more mesmerizing, whether it's the slow emergence of some very long fingernails or a lengthy pause before the inevitable last word of one of Jacques' songs of woe. And there are many other wonderful moments: e.g., Pyromaniac Harriet being engulfed in flames, Peter's parents lying stricken from sadness and fatigue as Jacques sings the beautiful "Flying Robert," the entire cast taking part in the boisterous puppet play "The Story of the Man That Went Out Shooting," and every one of the M.C.'s marvelous sneers. Some parents may be concerned that Shockheaded Peter will be too disturbing for their kids, but I think young ones are actually more likely to appreciate this darkly satirical look at childhood naughtiness than are their fussy folks.