Thereís no question that librettist Greenspan has an equally palpable affection for both Gaimanís drolly disturbing novel and the theatre itself. Rather than writing a spiritless point-for-point adaptation like those so frequently seen on Broadway these days, or radically rethinking the style or locale for easier assimilation on these shores (the storyís film version, which premiered earlier this year, was moved from Britain to America), Greenspan and director Leigh Silverman have mined the novel for the quirky and unpredictable spirit that so artfully captures imagination, elation, and terror as only children can experience them. And in presenting practically every primary plot point in unexpected by unimpeachable ways, they know just how to much you feel like a kid again, too.
Itís hard to resist, for example, puppets called into service to play roles ranging from yapping dogs to the anguished but optimistic shades of dead children. Or a set (by Christine Jones) that sometimes feels like a comfortably cluttered playroom and sometimes like the pure embodiment of seat-of-the-pants playmaking. The lights (Ben Stanton) and props highlight that same interplay, defining this worldís uncertain boundaries and skewed perspectives with an icky but satisfying class. Itís makeshift music hall in all its (intentionally) penny-pinching glory, John Doyleís actor-musician-confusion conception of musicals done sensibly, smartly, and well.
The only thing Coraline lacks - and itís unfortunately a biggie - is musical necessity. If Greenspan has avoided the mistake of so many bookwriters and constructed a work that truly lives and breathes onstage, Merritt has matched his contributions with the sound and sentiments that could make this evening feel like it deserves to be something more than a straight play. There are flashes of innovation, to be sure - accompanist Phyllis Chen taps away on the keys of toy pianos as often as she does those of a real upright - but they seem more gimmicky than they do integral.
Itís not just that the songs give you nothing to take away, itís that they take in nothing to give you. An early number for Coralineís aging actress neighbors (January LaVoy and Francis Jue) is a plodding expansion of a small handful of flavorful lines in Gaimanís original. Numbers for rats, a cat (Julian Fleisher, bearing a beguiling Cheshire-like grin), and animated toys are vivid time fillers, but largely devoid of personality and character. Even Coraline herself gets nothing to sing about that isnít replicated in her dialogue.
If it never gets to the point that youíre dreading the songs, itís also nearly impossible to look forward to them. Coraline obviously isnít trying to be a conventional musical - and how could it ever be one? - but it still has the obligation to be listenable rather than merely bearable. Its running time may be only about 100 minutes, but thatís more than long enough to turn you off with the inert dramatics its tunelessness inspires.
In all cases but one, that is. Greenspan has saved himself the choice role of Coralineís Other Mother, who longs to trap the child forever in her shadowy dominion behind the walls. Heís giddy perfection throughout, dressed (by costume designer Anita Yavich) as a post-electrocution rag-doll Cher, and embracing campís most terrifying clichťs while maintaining an essential innocence that prevents his turn from turning into a treatise on the gay theatre with which heís so closely tied. So itís unsurprising thatís ensured he gets a truly 11-oíclock showstopper, Other Motherís explosive parting shot as her show-length enmity with Coraline quite literally plunges into a pitch-black infinity.
But itís less the song than his performance of it thatís so dynamic. ďIt takes quite a while,Ē he sings early on, literally shooing Houdyshell out of her well-deserved spotlight, as if to say, ďThis is what everyoneís been waiting for - including me - so sit there and give me my chance.Ē How can she help but oblige? And how can you help but adore a moment that so richly respects and rewards the staunch individuality on which all of the best musicals have always been built?
This would be unthinkably audacious if it werenít also correct. The audience needs - and wants - to connect with a character a level thatís at once intimate, immediate, and theatrical - even if itís the villain. The lyrics donít do much more than tie up what remains of the plot, but theyíre enough to elicit applause, cheers, and the sense that everything youíve been watching has happened for a reason after all. The rest of the score of Coraline may not support this showís reason for being, but its lapses are basically forgivable because everything else from Greenspan on down so emphatically does.