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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Francis Jue, Jayne Houdyshell, Elliot Villar, and William Youmans.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Little Coraline Jones couldn't have picked a better place to pursue adventure than the theatre. And it's hard to picture a more adventurous musical for her journey than the one Stephin Merritt and David Greenspan have developed from Neil Gaiman's delightfully dark 2002 novel about the little English girl who discovers more than she expected behind certain doors in her new house. The new MCC production of the musical, like the novel titled Coraline, lights up the Lucille Lortel Theatre with invention but, like its heroine, proves that not all adventures have entirely happy endings.

There's no question that librettist Greenspan has an equally palpable affection for both Gaiman's 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 story's 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.

It's 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 world's uncertain boundaries and skewed perspectives with an icky but satisfying class. It's makeshift music hall in all its (intentionally) penny-pinching glory, John Doyle's actor-musician-confusion conception of musicals done sensibly, smartly, and well.

David Greenspan
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Each of the seven performers in the production's nonstop cavalcade of an acting troupe are terrific, tackling multiple roles skirting heightened and nightmarish humanity with equal conviction. Particularly terrific is Jayne Houdyshell, that marvel of an Everywoman comedienne who's brought childlike wonder into her roles in plays such as Well and The Receptionist but now invests adult wisdom in a child who really needs it to conquer fears up to and including death itself. She may technically be several decades too old to play Coraline, but the wide-eyed delight, fright, and deviousness she summons up every instant she's onstage tell you more about this plucky girl than even the most enterprising actress of the proper age possibly could.

The only thing Coraline lacks - and it's 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.

It's not just that the songs give you nothing to take away, it's that they take in nothing to give you. An early number for Coraline's aging actress neighbors (January LaVoy and Francis Jue) is a plodding expansion of a small handful of flavorful lines in Gaiman's 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 isn't replicated in her dialogue.

If it never gets to the point that you're dreading the songs, it's also nearly impossible to look forward to them. Coraline obviously isn't 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 that's 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 Coraline's Other Mother, who longs to trap the child forever in her shadowy dominion behind the walls. He's giddy perfection throughout, dressed (by costume designer Anita Yavich) as a post-electrocution rag-doll Cher, and embracing camp's most terrifying clich├ęs while maintaining an essential innocence that prevents his turn from turning into a treatise on the gay theatre with which he's so closely tied. So it's unsurprising that's ensured he gets a truly 11-o'clock showstopper, Other Mother's explosive parting shot as her show-length enmity with Coraline quite literally plunges into a pitch-black infinity.

But it's less the song than his performance of it that's so dynamic. "It takes quite a while," he sings early on, literally shooing Houdyshell out of her well-deserved spotlight, as if to say, "This is what everyone's been waiting for - including me - so sit there and give me my chance." 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 weren't also correct. The audience needs - and wants - to connect with a character a level that's at once intimate, immediate, and theatrical - even if it's the villain. The lyrics don't do much more than tie up what remains of the plot, but they're enough to elicit applause, cheers, and the sense that everything you've been watching has happened for a reason after all. The rest of the score of Coraline may not support this show's reason for being, but its lapses are basically forgivable because everything else from Greenspan on down so emphatically does.

Through July 5
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street, between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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