Bizarre, demented, disturbing, ghoulish, grotesque, gruesome, macabre, nightmarish, twisted, warped, and wickedly funny, Cygnet Theatre’s Shockheaded Peter is a stunningly designed musical treat filled with hilariously over-the-top characters and weirdly infectious tunes that will make any child (no matter how aged) think twice about misbehaving.

Indeed it was precisely to persuade his own three-year-old to be a good little boy that 18th-century German writer Heinrich Hoffmann penned Der Struwwelpeter, a series of grimmer-than-the-Grimms “cautionary tales” in which one recalcitrant child after another meets a disastrous end, from “Augustus,” who discovers that a refusal to eat one’s soup can turn an overweight boy into a skeleton, to “Cruel Frederick,” whose fondness for torturing his pet pooch earns him a fatal bite, to “Harriet,” who gives up playing with matches only upon burning to smithereens.

Hardly the stuff of a Disney musical or even off-Broadway at its most outré, but that didn’t stop Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott from adapting Der Struwwelpeter for the London stage with songs by the cult British trio The Tiger Lilies, eleven ditties originally sung by head Tiger Lilly Martyn Jacques in his distinctive screech of a falsetto and now performed with equal ear-piercing flair on the Cygnet stage by Steve Gouveia’s Siren in flaming fright wig, nipple-tassel-adorned wife beater, fishnets and boots.

Gender-bending emcee Sarah Errington (in his/her own scary red wig, handlebar mustachio, frock coat, and paunch), aka “the greatest actor who has ever existed,” welcomes us to the theater with brio and a bit of the Bard, then introduces us to hapless Father (Adrian Alita) and Mother (Kevane La’Marr Coleman), whose infant son (the titular shockheaded boy) proves so grotesque that Dad and Mum bury him beneath the floorboards hoping never to see him again. (They should be so lucky.)

Shockheaded Peter (The Musical) then turns into a sort of Cabaret From Fairy Tale Hell as the aforementioned Augustus, Frederick, and Harriet get joined by “Conrad” (whose thumb-sucking gets his digits snipped off), “Bully Boys” (who get their heads smashed to smithereens for their tormenting ways), and “Fidgety Phil” (no longer so fidgety after impaling himself on the knives and forks he once thought were playthings).

Each of the above evil tots earns his or her own super-freaky production number thanks to director Rob Lutfy and choreographer Michael Mizerany at their most unbridled and unhinged, and a production design that could easily turn out San Diego’s Best Of 2017.

Shirley Pierson’s fractured-fairy-tale costumes and puppets play as major a role in bringing Shockheaded Peter to lunatic life as Danielle Airey, Marc Caro-Willcox, Donny Gersonde, Siri Hafso, and Isaac Kalimo, the multitalented performers who sport and manipulate them, with Airey earning added oohs and aahs for the spectacular a display of aerial grace, athleticism, and derring-do that is “Johnny Head-In-Air.”

Errington has never been more scene-stealingly stellar, Gouveia’s sky-high-pitched vocals are are just what The Tiger Lillies ordered, the splendid Alita and Coleman end up with their just desserts by journey’s end, and all of the above get backed up by ace musical director Patrick Marion on bass, Mark Danisovsky on accordion, and Nathan Hubbard on bass, with added kudos to Matt Lescault-Wood for his mysterious and spooky sound design. Mariel Shaw is swing.

Scenic designers Sean Fanning and Jungah Han’s German Expressionism-meets-Berlin music hall set, Chris Rynne’s uber-theatrical lighting design, Peter Herman’s wild-and-wacky wig and makeup design, and Rachel Hengst’s equally kooky properties give Shockheaded Peter a look unlike any other production I’ve seen.

Vanessa Dinning is assistant director. Dean Remington is stage manager and Hannah May is assistant stage manager. Taylor M. Wycoff is dramaturg.

If Shockheaded Peter’s cautionary tales are any example of what befalls a disobedient child no matter his or her age, then those who disobey this reviewer’s orders not to miss out on the grim and grisly fun can count on meeting their own unfortunate end, or at the very least on wishing they’d caught the latest from Cygnet, once again tops in professional San Diego theater by San Diegans for San Diegans (and Angelinos smart enough to make the trek down).

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Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
May 28, 2017
Photos: Darren Scott

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