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A CurtainUp Review

Mum and Dad and I we live on the second floor of this old house that was once one house but is now divided into flats. Above, in the attic under the roof, is a crazy old man who says he's training a mouse circus. On the ground floor below are two old women who say they were once actresses. — Coraline
Jane Houdyshell
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Who ever gets the credit for casting Jayne Houdyshell as a young girl in this musical stage version of Neil Gaiman novel Coraline should take a bow. As the titular character, the courageous Houdyshell is not only totally believable in a role significantly far from her own age but also delightful. This Tony-nominated actress bowled us over for the first time as the mother who healed sick neighborhoods, but found solace tethered to her La-Z-Boy in Lisa Kron's Well (review). Rather than mention the other roles that have continued to validate Houdyshell as one of our foremost character actresses, let me say that she endears herself instantly and continuously as the precocious English girl with a vivid imagination who loves to explore. In Coraline she is the heart and soul of a musical that unfortunately is constructed around too many incredulously conceived and performed characters.

Undoubtedly Houdyshell's success in portraying the title character has been sparked by Leigh Silverman who also directed her in Well. Silverman certainly had her work cut out disciplining the fantastical and metaphysical elements that weave through this story. If she has purposely blurred the boundary that separates a dream from reality, she has succeeded. Where her direction falters is in not keeping a tighter rein on the essential group of supporting actors who unfortunately drift in their portrayals between the amateurish and the acquiescent.

Arriving within a year of the release of a successful cartoon version of the novel, Coraline is an adaptation for the stage with some "compressing and conflating," (as noted in the program) by David Greenspan, who not only wrote the musical's book but takes a prominent role as the Other Mother. In creative partnership with Stephin Merritt (music and lyrics), there is evidence that Greenspan has labored rigorously to grace the short novel (first published in 2002) with a conspicuously audacious sense of theatricality. Much of it, however, falls as flat as the singing, with Houdyshell the notable exception.

It is a good thing that Coraline gets and deserves our attention as she shares with us her annoyance with her workaholic parents (January LaVoy and Francis Jue) who are too preoccupied to notice how much she craves their attention. The family has just moved into a second story flat within a large home, presumably a once stately mansion that has been converted into separate apartments. Set Designer Christine Jones and lighting designer Ben Stanton have done a super job creating a basic environment of musty fixtures and relics that transposes itself from the mundane to the mysterious and foreboding with a minimum of ado and fuss.

Serving as confidant/narrator Coraline is especially curious about her new home. She begins to notice that certain things are not exactly normal when rats begin to creep up (as do the songs) from among the floor-boards and that one locked door that . . . well, you know. Of course, traipsing about the damp surroundings in and out of the house in her green rubber boots, Coraline suddenly finds she has entered a world that mirrors her own even as she meets oddly familiar characters that appear sincere, but soon become suspiciously sinister and even frightening.

Although Coraline's subsequently scary adventures are a barely disguised mirror of Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass, Gaiman's little girl is obviously in more serious danger in this alternate universe. We are also not altogether surprised when the "Other Mother" turns out to be less loving than she first appears and wants Coraline to stay forever. The Other Mother has a nasty end that echoes the demise of the bad witch in The Wizard of Oz. It similarly resounds with melodramatic excess. In this blood-curdling yodel-punctuated finaletto "Falling," (there are no musical numbers listed in the program) Greenspan gets to span more octaves than have been attempted since the hey-day of Yma Sumac (famed as "the nightingale of the Andes" for her octave-spanning vocals).

Considering that this is a musical, there has apparently not been much of an effort to encourage the supporting cast of non-singers to hit the prescribed notes. This may, however, be attributed to the accompaniment supplied by Phyllis Chen at a derelict un-tuned piano. Ms Chen also plunks the piano's warped strings throughout the show with aplomb. In considering Merritt's score, in which the soured notes follow one another gainfully and mercifully without bumping into each other, there is occasionally something to admire in the lyrics. You have to laugh when Caroline sings about her parents' cooking: "Dad cooks chicken — and says it's free range. But he stews it with prunes— and he's always basting it. Mom cooks chicken — but it' comes in frozen packages, and I hate tasting it."

The story's significant others are an odd bunch, all of whom live in the different quarters (real or imaginary) in the house where alter-egos and dead spirits are apt to be afoot. Francis Jue, who was so marvelous two seasons past playing 17 characters in David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face (review), is again proving his versatility as the Father and, among others, the elderly retired actress Miss Forcible who lives with another has-been Miss Spink (LaVoy). Together they re-live highlights of their careers and even perform a decidedly grotesque vaudeville act for the understandably unappreciative Coraline.

Elliot Villar cavorts amusingly as the eccentric Mr. Bobo who lives in the upper floor and spends his time training a mouse circus, and who also persists on calling Coraline Caroline. Presumably the talking Cat, as played with a grin and some degree of grace by Julian Fleisher, comes from Cheshire and proves a dependable and affectionate companion to Coroline. If you are inclined more to grinning than guffawing, you may find that your time is not ill-spent with Coraline as she discovers that there is no place like her real home and her real parents. In any case, it would have been fun to see Coraline click her green rubber boots three times as everyone sings, "Amazing? Keep chasing your tale. O! Follow your tale."

By Stephin Merritt (music and lyrics) and David Greenspan (Book)
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Cast: Jayne Houdyshell (Coraline), January LaVoy (Miss Spink, Mother, Other Miss Spink), Francis Jue (Miss Forcible, Father, Other Miss Forcible, Winged Girl), Elliot Villar (Mr. Bobo, Other Mr. Bobo, Tall Girl), Julian Fleisher (Cat), David Greenspan (Other Mother), William Youmans (Other Father, Little Boy, Policeman)
Set Design: Christine Jones
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Musical Director: Kimberly Grigsby
Pianist: Phyllis Chen
Choreography: Denis Jones
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes with no intermission
MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
Tickets ($65.00 to $95.00)

From 5/07/09; opening 6/01/09; closing 7/05/09 Reviewed by Simon Saltzman May 31st
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