nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
November 28, 2010
Before the Grinch, before Scrooge, there was another, scarier Christmas grouch...Black Peter. Santa's disciplinarian, Black Peter was the creepy elf who gave bad children lumps of coal or worse. Sometimes, he'd cook them in a stew, or stuff them in his burlap sack and whisk them away to Spain, enslaving them in his coal mine. Such is the dark yuletide tale told in Black Peter, the gleefully grim new musical by Patrick Quigley and Kevin MacLeod. Determinedly homespun, this quirky musical revels in its cynical bad cheer, so much so that its ghoulish spark never dims even if it never fully ignites.
If you've seen Shockheaded Peter, the folktale-inspired "junk opera" by Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch, and the Tiger Lillies that first played New York in 1999, you'll recognize some of that work's campy Guignol spirit in Black Peter. The two shows are similar in theme and style. Both simultaneously celebrate and deconstruct grisly stories designed to scare children into good behavior; both mix puppetry with live action and music. Shockheaded Peter was a Gothic fairy tale for all ages; but the audience of Black Peter is harder to place. Tone is a problem. Black Peter tries to have it both ways—a dark satire for grownups played with a peppy earnestness that children would love—but something's off-key. The cynicism gets adults giggling, the singing puppets could entrance kids (though Black Peter's penchant for swearing and threatening violence—not to mention some veiled sexual allusions and rude gestures—might challenge what parents find acceptable). In the end, it's too adult for some children, and too childish for some adults. The work posits a fascinating central paradox—that gruff, brokenhearted Black Peter, who was shell-shocked from fighting in the Crusades, might actually be more sympathetic than glib Santa Claus, who crassly ignores his wife and commercializes Christmas—but complexity gets lost amid detours into cheap jokes (a thankless segment about a Puritan girl who asks Santa for a voodoo doll) and overly wrought scene transitions. (Are shifting all those black boxes between scenes really necessary?)
Still, Black Peter has its own offbeat charm. Though transitions could be simpler, director Jacquelyn Honeybourne blocks the show well in a tight space with limited resources, evoking a kind of demented school pageant. Kevin MacLeod's lively score is a sparkling pastiche of holiday songs, complemented well by Patrick Quigley's clever lyrics (there's a wry My Fair Lady homage built into "In Spain," the dirge sung by the children imprisoned in Black Peter's coal mine). The cast members play their roles with deadpan sincerity that never descends into archness. Hanlon Smith-Dorsey rambunctious Black Peter is a great clown and, surprisingly, an empathetic soul. Alena Acker brings grace and fire to Margarita Cervantes, Black Peter's lost love, while Kelly King is an amusingly hyperkinetic Mrs. Claus. Kurt Fitzpatrick finds the darkness beneath Kris Kringle's (aka Santa Claus) jolly exterior, and Adam Kee brings unexpected depth to Jack, the world-weary narrator. Lindy Flowers is brightly cheerful as Ruby the efficient Elf/P.A. who helps Santa Claus juggle deals with Coca-Cola and the Saturday Evening Post. Everyone doubles as a variety of puppets, ranging from children to talking microphones, though sometimes the puppets' mouths do not sync with the dialogue.
Such rough edges add to the homespun, school-pageant aesthetic of the piece...an endearing, if not always consistent, antidote to the sugary sentimentality of the season.