Feature

Stage: Coraline

Neil Gaiman’s “bewitching” children's novel has been turned into a musical by David Greenspan and Stephin Merritt.

Lucille Lortel Theatre
New York
(212) 279-4200

**

Neil Gaiman’s “bewitching” 2002 children’s novel has become a sort of “mini-franchise,” said David Rooney in Variety. The fairy tale about a young girl who slips into a parallel universe has spawned a graphic novel, a stop-motion animated film, and now this “most ambitious” of stage versions. “Maverick theater artist” David Greenspan has adapted the text, and music and lyrics are by the “Kurt Weill of indie rock,” Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. Coraline the musical is a “wildly unconventional piece” that combines Gaiman’s “magical blend of old-fashioned storytelling and modern fantasy,” Greenspan’s penchant for “theatrical illusion,” and Merritt’s signature “droll lyrics and atonal melodies.” But the show “demands giant leaps of imagination,” the biggest of which involves buying “50-something” actress Jane Houdyshell in the role of the 9-year-old adventurer of the title.

The source material is undeniably enchanting, but the story’s essence gets lost in Greenspan and Merritt’s translation, said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. The title character is a “plucky, curiosity-driven heroine” who conjures a “miraculously improved version of her ordinary home life,” complete with another mother, who is eager to satisfy each and every childhood desire. Her mantra, “Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky,” is delightfully appropriate in an age in which ­children can find themselves in strange worlds at the click of a mouse. But there’s just too much “self-conscious craftsmanship” here. The audience’s attention is directed toward the style of storytelling, rather than at the tale itself, making Coraline the musical feel “too cool to be truly seductive.”

“It can’t have been easy to turn this material into a musical,” said Stephanie Zacharek in New York. Give Greenspan and Merritt credit for having met the challenge “gamely,” if not always successfully. The show has plenty of charming “low-key touches.” Christine Jones’ imaginative set “is a pleasing jumble of steampunky Victoriana,” and Merritt’s “eerie, plinky prepared-piano melodies” set the perfect tone. But for all its cleverness, the musical is so overloaded with camp that the “delectably creepy undertones” of the original become diluted. At the center of Coraline’s problems is Houdyshell, whose performance “relies too much on that shoulder-shrugging, toe-stubbing ‘I don’t wanna grow up’ affectation adopted by adults when they’re acting like little kids.” That’s too bad: Fantastic tales like Coraline fall apart without a believable character at the core.

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