Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, the story of a curious girl who stumbles upon a parallel world, has had quite the multimedia run. Aside from the original novella, published in 2002, and the subsequent graphic novel, an animated adaptation recently opened across the country — in two- and three-dimensions, no less — followed by the release of a companion video game. Now, to significant fanfare and industry buzz, the children’s fantasy arrives on stage at the Lucille Lortel Theatrer. While neither rendered in colorful prose nor brought to life through stop-motion, the production has the distinct advantage of song — an advantage that is greatly intensified by Stephin Merritt’s helping hand.
Merritt occasionally composes for the stage, and his work as the Magnetic Fields, the Gothic Archies, and the 6ths frequently exudes theatricality and a sense of narrative. Similar to his recent collaboration with Daniel Handler on the popular Lemony Snicket series, Coraline finds him in close contact with playwright David Greenspan interpreting the horror-and-whimsy motifs of Gaiman’s original text. It’s a nice fit, and, in case you haven’t figured it out, it’s the only reason websites like this one are taking notice.
Perhaps to compensate for the limitations of mid-budget theater, or simply because Merritt’s stylistic touch is so strong, the play is as much a vehicle for bubblegum show tunes and novel arrangements as it is for the actual storyline. Which is great by my account, and works to distract the audience from the fact that the title character is played by the 50-plus-year-old Jayne Houdyshell. In her clenched fists and wide eyes, Houdyshell admirably strives for the uncertainty of childhood, but her youthful embarkment is more fully realized through Merritt’s wobbly, lilting melodies.
Because all of the music and sound effects come from human voice or prepared pianos — some strewn about the set, and some orderly arranged for the house pianist — Coraline the musical won’t compare to its more ornate literary and audiovisual counterparts. It is just a different thing. It is by definition simple, fun, and organic. It is ambitious in its own way. Or: If it’s Coraline you’re after, look elsewhere, but if it’s Stephin Merritt that excites you, then by all means open the secret door.
Audio samples from Coraline: http://www.mcctheater.org/shows/08-09_season/coraline/music.html