‘Shockheaded Peter’ — Cult classic musical gets new look at Cygnet Theatre

Looking for something totally different in musical theater? Check out “Shockheaded Peter,” coming to Cygnet Theatre in Old Town, May 18-June 18. It’s a 1998 British-born musical that took a 19th-century German children’s book full of cheerfully gory rhymed stories about what happens to kids who don’t do what they’re told and turned it into a theatrical classic.

The original stage production, featuring music by The Tiger Lillies, a three-piece, accordion-centered late-night club band, won worldwide raves two decades ago. It’s been described as a macabre steampunk cabaret, a series of grim fairy tales, and a perverse delight.

The play might not be every theatergoer’s cuppa soup, but may well become a cult hit at Cygnet, whose mission is ”to startle the soul, ignite debate and embrace diversity.”

Rob Lutfy, Cygnet’s associate artistic director, said he first heard of “Shockheaded Peter” when an agent told him that rights to it had just become available. “When I mentioned that at a meeting, three people on our staff freaked out. They knew the play and immediately wanted to do it this season.”

Lutfy admitted that at first, the script was a challenge. “It’s only 22 pages, devised for a group of friends who simply wrote down what they did. So there are stage directions like: ‘a series of disturbing images.’ But actually, it’s a director’s dream. I have the freedom to redirect the piece for my own group. It’s super exciting.”

He and his creative team, including costume designer Shirley Pierson and choreographer Michael Mizerany, have been working for over a year now, crafting their own version of the play.

“There’s only a threadbare narrative, so you’ve got to put a vision into it,” Lutfy said. “And we’ve managed to create a real narrative arc in between the cabaret acts.”

There will be a three-piece, accordian-centric band, with a falsetto singer, along with a cast who have mastered the arts of modern dance, clowning, stilt-walking, acrobatics and puppetry, and can sing and play instruments too. Each gory story will be told in a different style — using shadowplay, Bunraku puppets, masks, and full-body marionettes.

“It’s been a really beautiful collaboration, I’ve never seen so many smiles and so much passion,” Lutfy said. “If we all love it so much, I think other people will, too. They’ll love the spectacle and the music and the playfulness. It’s creepy and dark but no scarier than Tim Burton’s ‘Nightmare Before Christmas.’ I think there will be people who’ll come to see it many times, the kind of people who go to Burning Man — this could be their play.”

It could be your play, too, but don’t bring the children ... unless they’re at least 14 years old. Just bring your sense of humor and a sense of adventure, and don’t let the Scissor-Man catch you with your thumb in your mouth! It should be great fun for all of us to see how this Peter pans out.

IF YOU GO: “Shockheaded Peter” is on stage May 18-June 18 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., in Old Town. Tickets: $31-$62. Discounts available. (619) 337-1525.

Short history of ‘Shockheaded Peter’

‘DerStruwwelpeter,’ written and illustrated by Heinrich Hoffmann, a Frankfurt physician, was first published in German in 1845 as ‘Happy Stories and Funny Pictures for Children 3-6 Years Old.’ Translated into English by an anonymous author in 1848, it captivated British readers. In America, a year later, the book’s wild-haired cover boy became ‘Slovenly Peter.’ In various translations, and a confusing number of editions, it has remained in print ever since.

According to Wikipedia, the first theatrical production of ‘Shockheaded Peter’ was in London in 1900, with a second one following in 1914. There were other spinoffs, including a ballet, two films and a song cycle, and then, in 1998, a group of alt-theater Brits got together, turned the rhymed stories into musical numbers sung in an unearthly falsetto, added giant puppets, strange props and a sinister MC, and opened it in West Yorkshire as ‘Shockheaded Peter: A Junk Opera.’

It quickly became a cult hit, moving on to London’s West End and theaters around the world, winning kudos for its out-there originality. In 2002, a London revival won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment, in 2005, there was a Broadway revival, and now Cygnet is offering San Diegans the Shockheaded Peter experience.