Eerie, elegant, and witty, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is one of my favorite contemporary children’s books, one that I love reading aloud to my fourth graders. My response to adaptations of it have been mixed. I wasn’t wild about the graphic novel as I thought Coraline looked too old in it. As for the movie, I thought it was visually gorgeous, but have to admit that I was a bit disappointed in Coraline’s character — too petulant — and the altered ending.
And now we have Stephen Merrit and David Greenspan’s musical version. The first thing to know is that it is NOT FOR YOUNG CHILDREN and that is just fine. Merritt has made this very clear, but there were still children under the age of eight in the audience at the performance I attended yesterday, one of whom was sitting near me and began sobbing midway through. His parents attempted unsuccessfully to console him and finally took him out.
Okay, is that out of the way? For it is quite a theatrical experience for the rest — the staging is both magical and creepy, the performances engaging, Gaiman’s book is intact, and the whole thing is quite mesmerizing.Most of the music is done by piano — conventional (I think), prepared, and toy. Occasionally other instruments are used — say balloons. The set is delightful; the lighting gorgeous. The acting, singing, dancing, and movement is also quite splendid in its way.
For someone who knows the story, there is a delight in seeing how it is represented here. The mouse circus, the two aging vaudeville stars, the cat, the parents (original and Other), the souls, are all imaginatively conceived. Most of all, Coraline IS Coraline as I knew her in the book — crafty, clever, and brave.I’d read about the casting of a middle-aged woman, Jayne Houdyshell, as Coraline, and had admittedly wondered how that would go, but I gotta say that in the context of this production, it totally worked. She was terrific.
How it will fare with those who don’t know the story will be interesting to see. The plot is complex and often Coraline has to tell us that she is now somewhere else. We in the known are amused, but those not? I’ll be interested to see how it works for them.
An extremely eccentric, odd, fascinating, beautiful, and very satisfying piece of avant-garde theater.