nytheatre.com review by Robert Attenweiler
May 31, 2009
Coraline is a children's story, yes, but it's one of the creepy kind.
A young girl, Coraline Jones (Jayne Houdyshell), is the hero and the central conflict is between Coraline and the adults in her life, the danger from whom ranges from just being dismissive of her to threatening to feed on her soul. MCC Theater's new musical, Coraline, based on the Neil Gaiman book of the same name is a Brothers Grimm kind of fairy tale musical, the darker mirror image of the big-budget Disney musicals. It is a stylistically inventive, though ultimately curious, show. It's like if your parents gave you a drag show for your bedtime story.
Coraline Jones and her workaholic parents have just moved into a flat in a mysterious old building. Coraline is an imaginative, adventurous child who entertains herself by exploring the grounds of her new home and meeting the people who occupy the other flats. The retired circus man, Mr. Bobo (Elliot Villar), lives upstairs with his trained mice. Downstairs, faded actresses, Miss Forcible and Miss Spink (the talented and adaptive Francis Jue and January LaVoy respectively) live with their dogs and tell stories of their glory days on the stage. But for all their eccentricities, these people still betray themselves as adults; they call Coraline "Caroline," no matter how many times she corrects them. And, back at home, her parents' attention to their work comes across as a dismissive refusal to entertain Coraline. Even the presence of an enigmatic black cat (played with effective feline disinterest by Julian Fleisher) does little to break up the drudgery.
But, then, one day, when her Mother leaves the house on an errand, Coraline discovers the brick wall that had stood behind one of the doors in their flat has vanished and, in its place, there is a passageway to another flat. This flat, however, turns out to be exactly like her own, but when her parents appear—her "Other" parents—everything seems perfect. They cook the food that she likes. They entertain her with the most wonderful things. Only the black buttons sewn over everyone's eyes in this Other World suggest to Coraline that something may be amiss. Her Other Mother (played with menacing sweetness by David Greenspan) promises that she will always be the best mother and urges Coraline to stay with her Other Mother forever...all she has to do is have black buttons sewn over her eyes as well.
This show is supremely clever and, for the most part, enjoyable. Director Leigh Silverman, along with the show's composer and lyricist, Stephin Merritt (of the band The Magnetic Fields), and Greenspan, who also wrote the book, have made very strong choices, but I was too often left pondering those choices, rather than basking in their effects. For one, for a musical, there just aren't many songs—at least not in the traditional sense. This story is perfectly suited for Merritt's smart, witty lyrics, but too often the characters are left singing passages of exposition. When the songs do come (though I feel like I can count their number on one hand) they are wonderful—funny, catchy, and perfectly fitting to this show.
Greenspan's book is a fine accompaniment to Merritt's lyrics, though the story ends up being told to us far more than it is shown to us. Because of how much of the fantasy has to be evoked, but also because of a seeming choice by all parties to show the strings of the show's stage magic, Greenspan has Coraline telling us things like "I'm outside" or "the house is collapsing," making this production all about narration, or storytelling, which seems to stop short of this story's possibilities on stage.
The cast, which also includes William Youmans, shows wonderful flexibility, most of them playing multiple characters, Other versions of those characters, rats, providing sound effects, and more. The real magic in this show is this ability to create much with relatively little, a real credit to Silverman and the show's designers.