Review: “The Ghastly Dreadfuls” returns from the dead with frights for the inner child within us

The Ghastly Dreadfuls resurrects after a three-year sleep. (Photo courtesy Center for Puppetry Arts)
The Ghastly Dreadfuls resurrects after a three-year sleep. (Photo courtesy Center for Puppetry Arts)
The Ghastly Dreadfuls resurrects after a three-year sleep. (Photo courtesy Center for Puppetry Arts)
The Ghastly Dreadfuls resurrects after a three-year sleep. (Photo courtesy Center for Puppetry Arts)

The cult classic The Ghastly Dreadfuls is back from the dead. Created by the Center for Puppetry Arts’ Jon Ludwig and Jason von Hinezmeyer in 2006, the compendium of Halloween and horror-themed puppet shows ran until 2012 when the cast performed it as a farewell show, The Last Ghast

Of course, one of the themes of the show is that nothing stays dead forever and, in this case, we’re lucky to be revisited by something we’d thought had breathed its last. The Ghastly Dreadfuls is easily one of Atlanta’s best Halloween shows, and its return from the grave is a welcome one. The show runs through October 31 at the Center for Puppetry Arts.

If you’re familiar with the work of illustrator Edward Gorey or some of the films of director Tim Burton such as The Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride, you have something of the idea behind the Dreadfuls‘ combination of ghost stories, catchy music, gothic aesthetic and grim humor. 

The show features seven talented performers, who each play instruments in a band, sing, dance, act and operate all the puppets. The cast deservedly won a Suzi Bass Award for Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical for the 2012 farewell production.

Though most of the songs and stories are humorous, they actually represent a pretty broad range of styles, from the serious and moving “The 11:59” (based on a short story by Patricia C. McKissack about a former Pullman porter who hears the ominous whistle of an infamous ghost train), to a fantastically silly graveyard dance set to Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre.” 

I felt that there needed to be at least one story that was more genuinely gruesome in the Grand-Guignol style. The Girl in the New Dress adapted from a story by Larry Letemplier comes close — its designs are also among the most inventive — but another serious fright would have helped complete the picture. Skillful adaptations of funny ghost stories by Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde give the second half of the program a cozy and literary feel.

Some of the puppets are small, so the closer you can sit to the stage, the better. The show is marketed for adults, but it’s spookiness and humor are certainly appropriate for teens (it’s right up their alley, in fact); kids under the age of 16 are not allowed inside. Things can get kind of grim in the “joking about the undertaker” kind of way, and there’s some ribald humor here and there, so parental discretion is advised, as they say.

It’s not a perfect show. There are too many musical numbers that don’t involve puppets (the numbers do allow for the changing of props and scenery), and there are too many joking references to the race of an African-American performer; they’re made in a spirit of harmless and inclusive fun, but they start to pile up. 

Absent from the show was the sing-along “Le Petit Vampire.” I’d forgotten about the number, about a tiny vampire who meets a bad end, but before the show and during intermission I overheard more than one devotee note its absence with disappointment. 

Still, The Ghastly Dreadfuls serves up a deliciously old school cocktail of grimness about death and humor, a reminder of what has always made Halloween so creepy and fun to begin with.

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