The Other Coraline

1. December, 2010 Theater No comments


Show #121: Coraline, SF Playhouse, November 20.

Stacy Ross, Maya Donato and Jackson Davis in Coraline. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

By Sam Hurwitt

In another world, Coraline would be my favorite show ever.  It’s based on a deliciously dark fable for young readers by Neil Gaiman, author of the Sandman comic series and playfully mythic novels like Stardust, Good Omens and Anansi Boys. It’s a musical with songs by Stephin Merritt, the lyrical genius behind the band the Magnetic Fields and side projects the 6ths, Future Bible Heroes and the Gothic Archies, who I consider to be a latter-day Cole Porter. The script is by David Greenspan, playwright of the deft and dizzying metafictional comedies Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain at The Jewish Theatre and She Stoops to Comedy at SF Playhouse.

SF Playhouse is also presenting the West Coast premiere (and second production ever) of Coraline, which debuted off-Broadway in June of last year and was not particularly well received. (The better-known animated film that was released earlier in 2009 also has songs in it, but is completely unrelated to the stage adaptation aside from having the same source material.)

Young girl Coraline (don’t call her Caroline) has just moved into a spooky old house where she doesn’t know anyone, and her workaholic parents never pay attention to her. One rainy day when it’s too wet to play outside, she discovers an old door that opens to a brick wall, formerly leading to the empty flat next door. But later she opens it and finds a passageway to a near-perfect replica of her flat, but better, with more exciting toys and a doting Other Mother and Other Father who really, really want her to stay with them. Never mind that they have buttons for eyes and want to sew some on her too.  On second thought, maybe it’s best to mind that very much. She returns home to find her real parents missing and has to unravel the mystery of the Other Mother to try to get them back.

Just as things appear to be much better in the other flat with the Other Mother than in the real world, the Other Musical one might imagine from the stellar creative team turns out to be much better than the real thing. Although it has some enjoyable moments, for the most part the show is a mess.

Both the script and artistic director Bill English’s staging feel rushed in a way that makes the story hard to follow. The opening to the show is especially awkward, with quick and cursory introductions to the residents of the other flats in the house—aging former actresses Miss Forcible and Miss Spink and eccentric mice-circus trainer Mr. Bobo. It’s also bizarre that it either skips over or zooms through the disappearance of Coraline’s parents so that we only find out they’re missing when she mentions it almost as an aside to Misses Forcible and Spink.

There are some delightful moments in artistic director Bill English’s staging, and the whole look of it is fabulous. English is a terrific set designer, and this show is no exception. He and Matt Vuolo have created a deliciously creepy white-on-black cutout house with ominous trees and a large covered well in the foreground.  Valera Coble’s costumes make great use of black-and-white patterns, with bright colors only coming into the picture in the Other land. Christopher W. Wright’s puppets are also a highlight, particularly the Other Mother’s hand, although the transition from the giant spidery hand to Ross’s “normal” Other Mother could stand tightening.

In action, however, there’s a lackluster, ramshackle quality to the whole endeavor, starting with the music directed by Robert Moreno. Accompanied on both real and toy pianos, many of the songs are sung in a flat way that becomes wearying after a while. Although amusing as the nattering biddies, Maureen McVerry and Susi Damilano have particularly unharmonious harmonies together, which is curious because McVerry at least is a seasoned musical performer. Merritt himself tends to sing in a baritone drone that works well for him, but if the dissonance is intentional here it doesn’t sound that way, especially because the miked sound is canned and tinny. Even Merritt’s lyrics are so utilitarian here that they lack his usual lyrical legerdemain , although there are certainly plenty of clever lines in there if you listen closely enough (“we never married, so we’re undivorceable”).

Still, there are plenty of enjoyable moments in the performances along the way. McVerry, Damilano and Brian Degan Scott are endearingly dotty as the neighbors, and also amusing as the clattering, blaring toys awaiting Coraline on the Other Side. “We are the toys you should have had and would have had if you’d had a better mom and dad,” they sing.

Stacy Ross and Jackson Davis are amusing as the normal parents, but they’re terrific as the Other Mother and Other Father. Ross’s teeth lock in a marvelously creepy rictus grin as she moves between syrupy niceties and otherworldy noises, and the way her whole body staggers at things Coraline says is priceless. Just as the Other Mother has menace seeping through her sweet nothings, there’s a palpable sadness lurking behind the eager-to-please chipperness of Davis’s Other Father that makes him the most moving character in the piece. The Other Parents’ jaunty song about how happy Coraline’s normal parents are to be rid of her is a musical highlight, as is the Other Mother’s finale.

Coraline was played by an adult in the original New York production, but here she’s portrayed by the more age-appropriate 12-year-old Maya Donato and high school sophomore Julia Belanoff on alternate nights. Donato has a deadpan, almost bored quality as Coraline, accentuated by a habit of thrusting her arms out as if to say,”What’s the use?” Brian Yates Sharber has a slinky grace as a stylish cat that moves freely between the two worlds (in a suit vest and tie, with little ears sticking out of his plaid fedora), but he has a puzzling manner of staring, and constantly renewing his stare, like a cartoon hypnotist.

Because of the rushed and muddled passages, it seems like the show would be confusing if you hadn’t already read Gaiman’s original book, and possibly seen the movie as well.  Fortunately, the people who would be most excited to see Coraline would be those who already know the story backward and forward and back again. But it might help to bring a rock with a hole in it, so you can look though it and see if the Other Musical of your imagination holds together any better than the one onstage.

Through January 15
SF Playhouse
533 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA

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