A cult hit on the West End in 1998, Shockheaded Peter is making its New England debut with Company One Theatre, playing through April 4th. The original musical by The Tiger Lillies adapted the German 1845 book of morbid moralistic children’s poems Struwwelpeter. This production has Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys adapting The Tiger Lillies’ score to their own “steamcrunk” stylings. Sickert sings all the songs. He has an excellent voice and an energy that’s sadly lacking from the production as a whole. Credit goes to the band members who double as actors but there’s not exactly much for them to do as actors.
The songs, translating the Stuwwelpeter poems mostly accurately, are fun little bits in and of themselves, with some occasional creative puppetry. The big problem with the show stems from a failure of contextualization. The poems are a scattered selection: some are laughable in their harshness (e.g. Kaspar, Fidgety Philip), others boringly predictable (the girl with matches), some more respectable (compared to the fates of the other kids, it’s hard to feel bad about what befalls Bad Frederick or the Bullies, whose story has strangely been whitewashed of its original anti-racist moral), and one (the huntsman) is weirdly nihilistic. To frame these disparate stories into a compelling whole would require some clear perspective. The Playbill, unfortunately, ends up presenting more perspective on these stories than the show does. The show itself has two framing devices: a presenter who isn’t particularly funny or insightful, and an original story that contrasts some of the poems but is far too dragged out for its thinness. Without original insight, the play is a mildly entertaining diversion that Walter Sickert fans will want to check out but everyone else can easily skip without missing much.