On Thursday, 18 June, Diana and I went into the West Village to catch the last of our 2008-09 season subscription shows, MCC's Coraline at the Lortel. The New York Times had run it's review on 2 June, and I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. The play, a musical, is an adaptation of a popular children's book of the same name by Neil Gaiman, but Ben Brantley didn't make clear to me if, first, he liked the result or not, and, second, if the stage adaptation was for an audience of children or not. (The same children's book had been made into an animated children's film earlier this year. I haven't read the book--and I won't--and I haven't seen the movie--and I won't.) As I've reported before many times, I have problems with Brantley's reviews, so I don't accept his evaluations at face value, but I do rely on the review to give me an idea of what I can expect to see, and in this instance, I had no idea. (My friend Kirk told me he likes the author and that his older daughter, a young woman in her 20s, read and liked the book.)
I have no idea who David Greenspan (book) and Stephin Merritt (music and lyrics) figured their audience for Coraline, the musical, would be. The base material is strange to begin with, from what I can tell. Gaiman has won several prestigious awards, including the Newberry, the major award here for children's literature, and Coraline won a few in '02 and '03 its own self, among them two for sci-fi/fantasy. One of the awards the book got was the Bram Stoker prize, an award for horror stories! Stoker, for those who don't recognize the name, is the originator of Dracula. In other words, Coraline isn't just a children's book, it's a children's horror story. I can't begin to guess how appropriate that is, not being a parent, but I'd guess that its appeal is to 'tween boys--10, 11, 12 years old. I'd think real little ones wouldn't get it or it'd be too scary for them. (Some reviewers and critics have compared Coraline and Gaiman's other works to Lewis Carroll's Alice stories, but from what I can tell from synopses and summaries, Gaiman's stories are much, much darker and much more threatening.) Maybe I'm being a fuddy-duddy--it's more than possible--but in any case, if the book is aimed at 'tweens or youngsters, and I gather the animated movie was geared to little ones (I'm not sure how big 'tweens would go for a cartoon, even a 3-D cartoon), then who's the stage musical for? Leaving aside for the moment the storyline and its scary atmosphere, the storytelling of Greenspan and Merritt is very complex and stylistically sophisticated. I'll get to a description of the set, and costumes, and so on later, but they aren't straightforward or self-explanatory. There's little differentiation between some of the two worlds Coraline inhabits and the shifts in dimension, if you will, are not easily distinguished. The music is more along the lines of what I'd call recitative. (I'm not musically educated, so I may be misapplying the term, but they're not "songs" with distinct melodies and lyrics that set one kind of song off from another.) They're all very much the same in tone and all the characters sound very much alike musically, and I have the feeling that really young ears might just begin to tune them out as boring and indecipherable. But the 'tweens for whom this material might be most appropriate wouldn't seem to be attracted to the story of a 9- or 10-yr.-old girl lost in a big old house which encompasses two separate worlds. And an awful lot of the dialogue strikes me as too adult for the audience who might be attracted to the story or the themes. But (speaking as an adult--or almost), I have to wonder what Greenspan and Merritt thought we'd get out of this, except its pure theatricality (the way I was thrilled with Julie Taymor's creations in The Lion King when I took my mother, who was also delighted, to see it some years ago). The problem there is that there's not as much effective theatricality employed to tell this eerie story as there might have been--it quickly became repetitive. It was like a clever idea Greenspan and director Leigh Silverman came up with on day one, and then never managed to expand on and take beyond the idea stage to a full-blown accomplishment. So who does MCC expect to come and see Coraline? Ya got me! (I can tell you, it weren't me, that's fer sure. At an hour and a quarter, I couldn't wait to get out of the theater.)
I've hinted at some of the story already, but maybe I need to do a little plot synopsis since, unlike Mary Stuart, Coraline isn't likely to be familiar to some of you all. Because of the book's popularity and the existence of the movie, you can find a detailed summary of the story, so I'll make it really brief; the play is an abbreviated version of the novella's plot, but it's close enough if you really want to know more. (Both the book and the movie have Wikipedia pages, as does Neil Gaiman, too. IMDb.com has a site for the film, of course.) So: Little Coraline Jones, who's moved with her parents to a new apartment in an old house in a new neighborhood, walks through a mysterious door and discovers an alternate version of her life. On the surface, this parallel reality is eerily similar to her real life--only much more attractive. But when her adventure turns threatening, and her Other Mother and Other Father try to keep her forever, Coraline must count on her resourcefulness, determination, and bravery to get back home--and save her real family. Greenspan/Merritt and Silverman obviously put a lot of thought into how to stage these two worlds and the creatures that inhabit them. These latter include not only Coraline's neighbors in the house-turned-apartment building (there are parallels for the neighbors in the other reality, of course), but animals such as a mystical cat and a circus of mice, and ghosts of lost children.
Like the recent Shipwrecked!, MCC's Coraline is story theater. The set, by Christine Jones, is a jumble of abandoned and discarded objects, including four or five pianos in various states of disassembly. (Two, one of them "prepared" to sound like a toy piano or a harpsichord, are actually used by pianist Phyllis Chen who accompanies the songs and helps out with the sound effects which are all created by the cast one way or another). Except for Coraline and Other Mother, the actors all play multiple characters in the story and each character is differentiated by a bit of Anita Yavich's costume here or a hat there (there's no elaborate cat make-up, for instance, as in Cats) and, mostly, vocalizations and physicalizations by the actors. (Greenspan himself plays Other Mother. His long, ratty, black wig and the eye covers that represent the "buttons" sewn in place of eyes make him look a lot like Ozzy Osbourne in drag!) Realism isn't the style at hand here by any stretch--it requires the imagination of both the company and the spectators to make it all work. (This is part of why I question the appeal of this show for little kids: the clues are minimal and subtle to differentiate one character from another much of the time. Yet the story is pitched at their level.) Theatrically, it's all very intriguing--in a way, more like real story theater than Shipwrecked! was. I can't fault the work of the cast at all--that mixed bunch did yeomen's work. My complaint for director Silverman would be that she does a fine job with what was there, but never develops some variations (or encourages Greenspan and Merritt to add some) in the stage work, music, storytelling techniques, and so on, which become repetitive and predictable after a few encounters. I've done a few story-theater shows in my day, mostly children's fare, and the trick was to find the right--or a right--storytelling style for each tale. It wasn't just a matter of variety for its own sake, of course, but that every story has its own dynamic. The episodes of Coraline's explorations (that's what she called them) are like separate stories in a way, and each one should have at least a slightly different style. Even on the two sides of the magic door, in the different realities, the performance style is the same.
The one major gimmick in this production is the casting of Coraline. As I said, she's a 9- or 10-year-old girl; in the film, the voice was supplied by a real child, Dakota Fanning (if a child actor with her list of credits can ever be called a "real child"), who was 10 when the movie was produced (she's 14 now). In MCC's musical Coraline, the title role is played by Jayne Houdyshell, a 50-ish, stout, plain actress (of decidedly prodigious talent and energy). Now, this casting choice doesn't in any way add to the problems of the show, but I just wonder what the point of doing that is. Unless, of course, the intended audience is other middle-agers like me. (Yes, I know, they used adults as children in the very popular and successful 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee--but that wasn't a children's play. It was a play about children for adults. It ain't the same thing. Unless . . . .) Now, Houdyshell, who literally burst onto the theater scene only a couple of years ago, is quite wonderful, all other considerations aside. She does a more than credible 10-year-old without pretensions or apologies or winks, and it sure gave me something to watch. But why do it that way, except as a gimmick? (I sort of have the same question about casting Phylicia Rashad as Violet Weston in August: Osage County. It's event casting, I guess. There are other ways you could go, but this choice makes people take note.)
Another question I had, though of little final significance, I suppose, is why the show is performed in British accents. Yes, I understand that Gaiman is originally British, though he now lives in Minnesota or someplace, but there's no mention of place in the play (I don't know about the book) and there are no cultural elements that dictate that this must be a British locale. (Given the cast of the animated film, I'm guessing they didn't perform in accents.) No one does the accent badly or inconsistently, even in the songs, but I just question whether it's a necessary imposition on the cast. I couldn't see a reason for it. (The American actors in Mary Stuart all adopt British accents, but that was an existing production in which the two leads are British--and most of the major characters are Brits--except, of course, for Mary, who's Scottish raised in France. On the other hand, if Coraline uses British accents because the author is British, then the Mary Stuart cast ought to be performing in German accents! Go know!)
When the show was over, Diana, my companion, turned to me and asked if I knew Greenspan's work. I said, "Yes, and so do you." We had seen his adaptation of The Frogs last season at CSC--and we both thoroughly disliked it. She remarked, "Remind me the next time we come across one of his plays not to consider it." At the same time, the man sitting behind me, as he was putting on his jacket to leave, said, "It was enchanting." I believe most of the reviews were good to excellent, even enthusiastic. (I understand the New Yorker had reservations, but I haven't seen the notice myself.) I feel like I had witnessed a lot of creative energy pressed into service on material that wasn't worth the effort in the end. Greenspan and Merritt seem to have grabbed onto something that was a wonderful idea in their heads and worked at it, thinking, Ah, I know just how to do this bit, or something like that, but they lost sight along the way of the fact that the material wasn't being served by their creativity. Obviously I don't know how any of this came about, but that's what it felt like I had been sitting through.