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BWW Reviews: SHOCKHEADED PETER: A Series of Twisted Tales

Shockheaded Peter

Created for the stage by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, Original Music and Lyrics by The Tiger Lillies, Adapted from Heinrich Hoffmann's The Struwwelpeter; Director, Steven Bogart; Music Director, Walter Sickert; Dramaturgs, Ramona Ostrowski & Ilana M. Brownstein; Scenic Design, Michael Anania; Lighting Design, Justin Paice; Costume Design, Miranda Giurleo; Sound Design, Joel Simches; Props Design, Seth Shaw; Mask & Puppetry, Eric Bornstein; Production Stage Manager, Vivian Yee

CAST: Alexandria King, MC; Ensemble: Jacob Athyal, Sarah Elizabeth Bedard, Lisa Dempsey, Jade Guerra, Amelia Lumpkin, Tom Martin, Brooks Reeves

BAND: Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys - TJ Horn, Rachel Jayson, Jen Kenneally, jojo Lazar, Mike Leggio, Meff, Walter Sickert, Edrie

Performances through April 4 by Company One at Suffolk University, Modern Theatre, 525 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.companyone.org

Shockheaded Peter is not for the faint of heart, those who are easily shocked, or anyone prone to nightmares. That being said, all of the mayhem, darkness, and generally sinister acts are skillfully performed by trained actors and musicians (don't try this at home) so that no one really gets hurt, despite the carnage depicted in the twisted vignettes set in song. Company One presents the New England premiere of the musical created for the stage by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, adapted from Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann's 1845 German children's book The Struwwelpeter, a collection of gruesome cautionary tales written in verse.

Nearly a dozen stories of naughty children and imprudent parents are served up by an ensemble cast of Brooks Reeves, Jade Guerra, Jacob Athyal, Sarah Elizabeth Bedard, Lisa Dempsey, Amelia Lumpkin, and Tom Martin. The MC/narrator is Alexandria King, who does her best to frighten, entertain, and humor the audience, all while doing some of the heavy lifting, rotating or opening the giant box that sits in the middle of the stage. Her character just might be a distant relative of the emcee at the Kit Kat Klub in Cabaret, although more humorous and less debauched, or a descendant of a side show barker. King makes quite the impression with attire consisting of black platform boots, red and black striped tights, and a red bustier under a black tail coat, and her bright red lipstick stands out on her expressive face.

Reeves and Guerra are featured in the story that frames the show as a happy couple awaiting the arrival of their first child. When a giant stork (one of several outstanding masks and puppets by Eric Bornstein) delivers the bundle, their gleeful anticipation is replaced by horror when they get a glimpse of the repugnant lad, and they quickly stash him out of sight under the stage via a trap door. We revisit the downward spiral of their lives in-between the songs and scenes of other noxious, doomed children whose fates include starvation, being set on fire, having their thumbs cut off, and being stabbed by cutlery. Music Director Walter Sickert and his band, the Army of Broken Toys, have put their signature Victorian steamcrunk spin on the original music and lyrics (based on Hoffmann's text) of the 1999 production by The Tiger Lillies, and bring great energy and virtuosity to the stage.

Director Steven Bogart, formerly a drama teacher at Lexington High School, has an outside-the-box aesthetic that affects the ensemble. Although well-choreographed, their movements have an improvisational quality that makes them seem joyous or dangerous in the moment. Dempsey combines fabulous footwork en pointe with the comic terror of being consumed by flames ("The Dreadful Story About Harriet and the Matches"), Bedard displays great physical comedy on the dinner table ("Fidgety Phil"), and Lumpkin joins forces with the other two women to make a puppet with an umbrella soar overhead on cables they swing with controlled abandon ("Flying Robert"). Athyal and Martin are solid in their numerous roles.

The design team of Shockheaded Peter creates imaginative work across the board; Michael Anania's set, the aforementioned giant box covered with valentine decoupage that conceals an inner set with three foreboding doors; perfectly synchronized sound effects of echoing footsteps, a crying baby, ticking clocks, gunshots, and scratchy records playing on the gramophone by designer Joel Simches; and complementary lighting effects by Justin Paice, costume design by Miranda Giurleo, and props by Seth Shaw. Some members of the band stay on the upper level of the two-story set, while others roam about the stage or into the house, and Sickert, after making a grand entrance through the trap door, remains onstage throughout, the better to musically tell the tales.

As each child met his or her gory demise, it brought to mind the twisted tales of the late, great Edward Gorey. In 1963, he published an abecedarian book, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, which tells of the untimely deaths of twenty-six children (each representing a letter of the alphabet) in rhyming couplets, along with the author's distinctive black and white illustrations. Among the more mundane ways he had children die were falling down the stairs or choking on a peach. Not quite so dramatic as Hoffmann's endings and no musical accompaniment, but worth a read for fans of Shockheaded Peter. It's enough to give parents nightmares.

Photo credit: Liza Voll (Cast and The Army of Broken Toys)


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From This Author Nancy Grossman