TAMPA — When a production gets extended before it even opens, as was the case for Jobsite Theater’s Shockheaded Peter, there’s an inkling that it’s going to be special. But with aerial silk routines, puppetry, powerful musical and acting performances, comedy and tap dancing, Jobsite’s production raises the bar on what it means to be entertained.
The show is adapted from the 19th century book Der Struwwelpeter by German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann, a collection of cautionary tales about children who misbehave and ultimately meet their demise. It was created for the stage by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott and includes original music and lyrics by the Tiger Lillies. It premiered in London in 1997.
Directed by David M. Jenkins, the show is described as a “junk opera,” and it isn’t a traditional musical, but more of a gothic cabaret composed of vignettes that tell the tales of naughty children, like Harriet, who plays with matches, and Fidgety Phil. Performed in the Jaeb Theater at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, it’s a black comedy entrenched in the macabre, with absurd bits that truly make you laugh out loud. It feels very Tim Burton-esque; Burton’s character Edward Scissorhands is thought to have been inspired by Der Struwwelpeter.
Puppets and marionettes are employed to illustrate some of the children’s stories and make for some of the show’s most hilarious moments.
With colorful and intricate costumes designed by Katrina Stevenson (who is also an aerialist) and ghoulish makeup, wigs and animal masks, the show is a spectacle, like a dark carnival. Shadowy lighting designed by Jo Averill-Snell adds to the action, and a set designed by Brian Smallheer brings to mind the Haunted Mansion ride at Walt Disney World. Red aerial silks serve double duty as props, while other props are cleverly moved about the stage by the cast.
Aerialists Stevenson and Kasondra Rose stun as they climb and tumble down the silks, sometimes with props in hand, in an amazing and at times terrifying display of coordination and upper body strength. They also choreographed the production.
Music director Jeremy Douglass also composed additional original music and leads Mark Warren and Elwood Bond as the trio play a host of nontraditional instruments, including the melodica, glockenspiel, Theremin, bowed saw, otamatone, ukulele bass and a toy piano. They play on stage while costumed, and also provide sound effects like crying babies, with swirling music that gives a psychedelic effect.
The show is perfectly cast, and there’s a sense of real joy coming from the performers. As the emcee, Paul J. Potenza skulks around the stage, challenging and engaging with the audience and making facial expressions so pronounced you can read them from the back of the room.
Spencer P. Meyers, as the Siren, moves about like a windup toy, singing the tales of the naughty children and equally misbehaved adults with zeal in his clear, powerful voice.
As Mother and Father, Amy E. Gray and Jonathan Harrison have great chemistry and dance together gracefully, but also bring laughs as their characters begin to crumble. When they sing Flying Robert together, their voices blend beautifully.
Colleen Cherry is hysterical as she plays two of the children who meet their untimely ends. She has impeccable comedic timing, even when she works some of the puppets, a talent she shares with the rest of the cast. She flexes her vocal chops near the end of the play in a goosebump-inducing moment.
There’s much more to discover in Shockheaded Peter. No spoilers, but just know this: By the end of the show, the enthusiastic audience was on their feet, clapping along with the music.
If you go
Shockheaded Peter runs through July 3. $35.50 single seat, $79.50 pair of seats, $99.50 for a table of up to four. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays. Jaeb Theater at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. 813-229-7827. jobsitetheater.org.