The Great and Weally Tewwible: Two Plays-One ‘Cute,’ One Not

It’s a joy to report the outstanding success of Shockheaded Peter at the Little Shubert Theatre on 42nd Street. In its wonderfully inventive essentials, this magical show is everything we love most about theater, everything theater can be in its imaginative right mind.

I first raved about Shockheaded Peter when it was briefly in town five years ago and, as you can tell, it’s a little late in the day to change my mind now. To the contrary, to see it again is a great treat; to see it for the first time must be a source of wonder.

But why hold back? It is, quite simply, the best telling of a children’s fable I’ve ever seen. It’s for both adults and children, as all great fables always are. But if you are the parent of a squeamish child, my advice would be to lock the little darling in a cupboard and see the show.

Inspired by Heinrich Hoffman’s gleefully malevolent caricatures of 19th-century children’s tales, Shockheaded Peter might remind you on occasion of the twisted pleasures of Tim Burton. But what I love most about it is that its creative heart can only be found in the celebratory uniqueness of theater. Its set design is, for one supreme thing, extraordinary-a Victorian toy theater crossed with a miniature house of horrors.

The immensely gifted designers have created an entire world within a deliberately naïve cardboard set. Behind that velvet curtain, doors and windows open on wild imaginings. “Home sweet home,” as our ghoulish host informs us with Grand Guignol relish. His message is unusual: Home isn’t sweet!

Home isn’t even safe. You never know what’s under the floorboards. Our spectral host for the evening is a thespian wreck, the self-proclaimed “greatest actor that has ever existed.” He’s played hilariously by the brilliant Julian Bleach, and he knows a thing or two about the give-and-take of English pantomime. “Sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind,” he tells us to set the right tone. “And sometimes we have to be cruel for recreational purposes …. “

The show thus takes a certain pleasure in pain via spooky make-believe, Victorian melodrama and shadowy sideshows. The morality tales are mercifully unpious. The show possesses a winning sense of humor about itself. It isn’t cute or sugary, least of all arty. Created by the entire troupe, directed by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, it could be a tale told by a naughty child with an original mind.

A child is born! But the baby is so hideous with its nightmare shock of hair that its parents bury him under the creaky floorboards of their cozy home sweet home. “Anything to me is sweeter / Than Shockheaded Peter” goes the eerie song performed by the self-described “castrato-crooner,” Martyn Jacques, a white-face Pierrot, a balladeer-commentator, another ace in the remarkable show.

Mr. Jacques, the weirdly mesmerizing counter-tenor, is the composer of Shockheaded Peter, and his memorable score is exactly right. He’s also the founder of the trio known as the Tiger Lillies, who appear like deadpan wandering minstrels from another planet. They are from another planet. This is your chance to see them, if you aren’t yet fans.

The stories themselves are fantastic, witty, sinister and grotesque, not camp. A little girl plays with matches and is set on fire. Oops! Her taffeta dress turns inside out to consume her screaming in imagined flames. A smug cat watches the tragic scene.

A boy who couldn’t stop sucking his thumbs has them cut off by the Scissors Man! His mother warned him what would happen. “Serves him right,” she seems to say. The boy who used to suck his thumbs is played by a sad child-puppet bleeding pretty red ribbons. Puppets fit in well with the so-called humans, though who, or what, is human is a game that only puppets like to play.

“This is absolutely meaningless to you, isn’t it?” our snarling host admonishes us at the close, and brings down the house. “You try something a little bit different. And what do you get? Ridicule.”

Oh no, you don’t! Shockheaded Peter is the most original show in town, by a mile. It’s a smashing show in every way.

Showbiz Porn

On the other hand, I regret to say that The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, at Second Stage, is a dreadful disappointment (not at all like the charming documentary Spellbound). Be warned, though: The new musical about adorable child contestants in a spelling bee has been raved about by our friends at The Times as “irresistible,” “riotously funny” and “refreshingly hand-crafted.” Refreshingly hand-crafted indeed! Set in a near-barren gym that looks as if it cost the producers two cents, the entire show is creatively bankrupt.

Worse: It’s insulting. It is never appealing, at least to me, to cast adult actors as children. It’s horribly cute down to the last lisp and crossed eye. The cast members act exactly as you would expect them to act. This one’s the overgrown fat boy (with his magic foot that can spell out the words on the floor!), that one’s the bad seed in pigtails (with a theriouth lithp), he’s the neurotic loser, she’s Ms. Perfect, and she’s the awfully forlorn one who needs lots and lots and lots of love. In other words, they’re mini-adults.

Directed by James Lapine with music and lyrics by an off-form William Finn, Spelling Bee is showbiz porn. Meant to be an ingratiating, junior A Chorus Line, its inherent childishness is sans wit, sans surprise, sans teeth, sans anything other than the continuing infantilization of U.S. culture.

In its feeble treatment of children, it is everything that Shockheaded Peter isn’t. Spelling Bee is leadenly simple-minded lest it frighten the horses. There’s a knowing suggestiveness for the gallery-the juvenile ditty about hard-ons, the winking challenge to spell “cystitis” (or thythtithith). But as if adults pretending to be children weren’t punishment enough, there’s audience participation, too.

No less than four members of the audience are invited onstage for lengthy periods, creating bewildered little dead zones of their own. The show is saying blatantly: Isn’t this fun? And you should see those game volunteers join in the dance routine! Why, they don’t even know what they’re doing.

Audience participation is certainly a cheap way to cast a show. It’s a symptom of reality culture. You too can be a star! Reality show plus fetishized childishness = “irresistible.” The audience participation is prearranged, I assume, because if even one of the volunteers could really spell, they’d win the onstage competition and ruin the show.

That would be a great loss. Spelling Bee obviously isn’t for me. I weally, weally with it woth.