Chicago Theatre Review
A Perverse Victorian Delight
Shockheaded Peter – Black Button Eyes Production
In 1997 a bizarre, original 65-minute musical entertainment first found its light in Jolly old England. This perverse Victorian delight was conceived of and produced by Michael Morris for Cultural Industry, and commissioned by the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and the Lyric Hammersmith of West London for its first production. Based upon Der Struwwelpeter, a once popular, 19th century children’s book of cautionary rhyming poetry by German author Heinrich Hoffmann, the show offers a deliciously morbid evening of nightmares. This play was the brainchild of Julian Bleach, Tony Cairns, Tamzin Griffin, Jo Pocock and Graeme Gilmour. It features a score composed by Martyn Jacques and The Tiger Lillies. The evening’s entertainment is introduced by a ghoulish character called the MC, a character who resembles the Emcee in Kander and Ebb’s Weimar Germany-based musical, “Cabaret.” Similar to Lemony Snicket’s series of juvenile novels and Roald Dahl’s delightfully impish books for kids, this musical is comprised of ten short, spine-tingling scenes and vicious vignettes, all focusing on both the children who misbehave and the questionable parenting skills of their respective mothers and fathers.
This new Chicago production combines the skills of a dozen multitalented actors, a small onstage musical combo and an assortment of scary, intimidating puppets, along with many visual and auditory special effects, all to tell these admonishing tales. The result is a mixture of Grand Guignol gore and harebrained humor, enough to send chills and nervous titters throughout the audience. Perfectly directed with macabre relish by Ed Rutherford, musically guided by T.J. Anderson (who also conducts and plays with his onstage band), and choreographed by talented Derek Van Barham, this production delivers its cautionary lessons with menace and mayhem. Stylishly costumed in late 19th century splendor, Beth Laske-Miller has brought the devilish look of a Tim Burton film to glorious life. Bathed in Liz Cooper’s eerie lighting and Jon Mathias’ frightening sound design, Renaissance man Jeremiah Barr has designed the entire weird, wacky world for this play, from props, to puppets, including its intimate scenic design. Every technical element blends bloody nicely to tell these horrific stories.
A stork delivers a monstrous-looking baby to his Victorian parents, who decide to dispose of it. A child who sucks his thumbs is warned by his mother that, if he doesn’t cease, “Snip, Snip,” the Scissor Man will come by night and cut them off. A picky little boy refuses to eat his soup and soon wastes away to a mere skeleton. After another young boy repeatedly tortures his dog, he’s bitten in the leg and suffers a slow, painful death. A little girl, who’s been repeatedly warned to not play with matches, disobeys and suffers grave, fiery consequences. A child who finds savage pleasure in shooting harmless little bunnies meets his untimely end, when turnabout becomes fair play. And we also witness the poetic justices dealt to children who fidget too much, don’t watch where they’re walking and who defy their parents advice by playing outside during windy rainstorms.
The musically talented ensemble, many of whom are also skilled dancers in addition to being expressive actors, is ably led by the gifted and prolific Kevin Webb. Mr. Webb, who drips theatricality in this role, has not only appeared in every BBEP production but has been seen on practically every stage in Chicago. Leading roles in other ghostly musicals, such as “Coraline,” “The Secret Garden” and “Sweeney Todd,” have prepared him well for this moment. The purple coiffed Mr. Webb rules this play with an iron fist and a velvet hand, powerfully introducing each vignette and often playing several key roles, himself. He is, in a word, magnificent.
The parents of the titular character are played with guts and gusto by Stephanie Stockstill and Cody Jolly. Ms. Stockstill beautifully portrayed Johanna in Porchlight’s recent “Sweeney Todd;” and Mr. Jolly, a familiar face at Timber Lake Playhouse, has also starred in countless musicals, such as Theo Ubique’s Jeff-nominated “Blood Brothers.” The rest of the ensemble, all of whom arrive with impressive resumes, devilishly play several roles throughout the evening. Many also accompany themselves on various instruments, which adds to the street musicianship of the piece. The cast includes Ellen DeSitter, Kat Evans, Genevieve Lerner, Gwen Tulin, Josh Kemper, Pavi Proczko, Anthony Whitaker, Caitlin Jackson and Jessica Fisher, who is Ms. Jackson’s alternate at certain performances.
This play, with its tinkling music box-like score, combines proverbs, pantomime, puppetry and appropriately theatrical pyrotechnics to create the freakishly fantastic world of Heinrich Hoffmann’s cautionary tales. Certainly we’ve come a long way in parenting since 1845, when moms and dads threatened their children with the Boogey Man if they misbehaved and didn’t tow the line. But this funereally funny musical play, stuffed to its bloody brim with eccentric characters, over-the-top performances and black humor, is just what we need right now to take us away from the horrors of the real world, and to chill the soul and raise a few goosebumps on a hot summer evening.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 11-September 16 by Black Button Eyes Productions in the 2nd floor studio at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-935-6875 or by going to www.athenaeumtheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.