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.
Well Mama comes home and thereOuch! 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.
And he looks quite sad as he shows
his hands Ha! Ha! Says Mama, I knew
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.
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.