Musical "Coraline" even stranger than the book

Tue Jun 2, 2009 1:21am EDT
 
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By Frank Scheck

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Neil Gaiman's acclaimed children's novel makes an uneasy transition to the stage in this off-Broadway musical adaptation featuring music by acclaimed indie rocker Stephen Merritt (Magnetic Fields). Although this version of "Coraline" is unlikely to have the widespread appeal of the recent hit 3-D animated film, those with a taste for the decidedly offbeat could well turn it into a theatrical cult hit.

Definitely not for the younger kiddies, this stage version signals its unconventionality with its casting of the middle-aged Jayne Houdyshell in the title role of the unhappy little girl who enters an alternate universe through a magical door in her home.

Once there, Coraline discovers bizarre, mirror-image versions of the figures in her life, including an "Other Mother" (David Greenspan) and "Other Father" (William Youmans), who despite their strangeness -- they have buttons for eyes, for one thing -- at first seem to offer an appealing alternative to her self-absorbed real parents (January LaVoy, Francis Jue).

She also encounters various other exotic creatures, including a sardonic cat (Julian Fleisher) and several children whose souls, as we soon learn, were stolen by the Other Mother.

Book writer David Greenspan's adaptation is choppy and disjointed, failing to compellingly capture the source material's narrative tension and making the evening feel much longer than the 100-minute running time.

Merritt's score is equally problematic. Although the musical numbers demonstrate the prolific composer's ability to craft endless catchy melodies, many of the brief songs fail to cohere. And the fact that they're played mainly on such instruments as toy piano and "prepared" piano tend to give them a monotonous sameness. Still, some of the songs do stand out, such as the Cat's solo number (terrifically delivered by Fleisher) and the Other Mother's elongated death scene (played to the hilt by Greenspan).

Director Leigh Silverman has staged the proceedings in an imaginatively low-tech fashion, with Christine Jones' abstract set design consisting of numerous pianos of different shapes and sizes, several doors and various pieces of antique bric-a-brac.

The performers do well by their multiple roles, and Houdyshell is utterly winning as the vulnerable Coraline.

For all the musical's inventiveness, however, audience members might ultimately relate all too well to the title character's growing unease with her bizarre surroundings.