The joy of quirkinessTOBY ZINMAN
If your taste runs to big, gaudy, costume-dependent, over-miked, over-explained and overpriced musicals, you’re welcome to them. Coraline, staged in a small, off-Broadway house, uses imagination and daring in place of all that and gives us all the joy and wonder and moral-of-the-story you and the kids could ask for, but it refuses to give us the Stand Alone Love Song or the Acrobatically Choreographed Production Number or the Spectacular Revolving Set.
Based on Neil Gaiman’s young adult novel (which subsequently became a graphic novel and then an animated film), the musical Coraline concerns a young, smart, curious and bored English girl who loves to explore. She’s played by the endlessly surprising Jayne Houdyshell, whom Philadelphia audiences may remember from the Wilma Theater’s production of The Clean House.
It’s worth noting at this point that Jayne Houdyshell is not a nine-year-old girl but a plump, middle-aged woman. The show’s casting startles at every turn: age, race, ethnicity, gender— no pigeonhole is big enough to trap these remarkable actors. Suspension of disbelief is never even an issue— they’re that good.
A cat without a cat suit
Left to her own devices by her preoccupied parents, who recently moved to a flat in a big old house, Coraline meets the house’s other occupants and roams the grounds in the rain, discovering charm and eccentricity and peculiarity wherever she goes. She meets a remarkable pair of aged actresses, Miss Spink (January LaVoy) and Miss Forcible (Francis Jue) who give her tea and a strange stone, a talisman against danger. On the topmost floor lives Mr. Bobo (Elliot Villar), who trains circus mice. And outside she meets the cat (Julian Fleisher), whose disdainful felineness is indisputable despite his lack of a cat suit.
But one day Coraline finds a locked door and discovers behind it a parallel world, her Other Home. If you know any of Gaiman’s novels, like the Sandman series or Neverwhere, you know he’s fond of doors as portals into mysterious and dangerous but unnervingly familiar-feeling worlds.
Behind the door, Coraline finds her Other Mother (the fabulously creepy David Greenspan), who provides all the food and attention and declarations of love her real mother doesn’t bother about, backed up by Other Father (William Youmans). But when Coraline’s real Mother and real Father vanish, she must find out if she’s brave enough to confront evil and rescue them; and, having found her courage, Coraline, like Dorothy, discovers there’s no place like home.
One pianist, three pianos
The music is just as surprising as everything else in this show: Although the cast helps out occasionally on toy ukuleles, there is only one musician (Phyllis Chen), who plays only pianos— an upright, plus a toy piano that makes eerie sounds, plus, even eerier, a “prepared” piano that’s outfitted with clips and strings and various devices to alter the comforting domestic sound of the normal piano. Atonalities abound. Quirky doesn’t begin to cover it.
The lyrics manage to combine straightforward storytelling and delicious ironies. Coraline is proof positive that you don’t have to be cynical to be sophisticated. The final song begins, “Oh, life is one long fairytale/to show again/ that dragons exist, and/they can be beaten—/not only with swords, magic wands, /and hexes, but with/ your noodle— and that’s no myth, Miss!”
You might feel, as did my theatergoing companion, that it’s all a bit “twee” and that the songs were unmusical. But there’s no disputing taste, and I was enchanted.