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June 5, 2009

TT: Clever little Coraline

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I report on the most talked-about New York opening of the summer, the musical version of Coraline, and the last of the shows I saw on my recent cross-country run, Design for Living. Here's an excerpt.

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CORALINE%20HEDSHOT.jpgThe phrase "cult classic" sets my teeth on edge, but "Coraline," Neil Gaiman's deliciously scary 2002 children's book, is well on the way to qualifying. It's already been turned into a graphic novel and a 3-D animated feature film, and now "Coraline" has become an Off-Broadway musical whose previews generated so much buzz that the show's limited run has already been extended for two weeks. Whether the musical version has any future beyond its current run is another matter. I think it does--but only if future productions slice away the obscuring coyness that keeps this exceptionally promising show from living up to its full potential....

For the stage version, Stephin Merritt, the brainy singer-songwriter whose band, the Magnetic Fields, has spawned a cult of its own, has written a self-assured score that is easily the best thing about the show. Mr. Merritt's songs, which are terse, pointed and dramatically effective, are accompanied by an "orchestra" consisting of a pianist (Phyllis Chen) who plays a regular piano, a toy piano, and a keyboard that has been "prepared" à la John Cage. The unearthly sounds emitted by the prepared piano accompany the scenes that take place in the alternate world of Coraline's Other Mother, an evocative and superbly theatrical touch....

The biggest problem with "Coraline" is that the title role is being played not by a girl but by a 56-year-old woman, Jayne Houdyshell, a talented actress whose performance here is inexplicably, exasperatingly twee. Not only does Ms. Houdyshell's faux-naïf acting have nothing to do with the coolly matter-of-fact tone of Mr. Gaiman's book, but her distracting physical presence rips up the roots of plausibility without which Coraline's fantastic adventures in the shadow world of her Other Mother make no dramatic sense....

DESIGN%20HEDSHOT.jpgAnyone who saw the Roundabout Theatre Company's ill-conceived 2001 Broadway revival of "Design for Living" and wondered what the fuss was about should catch the next train to Washington, where all is made satisfyingly manifest by the Shakespeare Theatre Company. "Design for Living" isn't Noël Coward's best play, but it's one of the most original and challenging things he ever wrote, and Michael Kahn, the company's artistic director, has underlined the play's essential seriousness without undermining its fizzy humor....

What I like most about Mr. Kahn's production is that his actors don't punch the jokes too hard: They mostly just let them happen. Gretchen Egolf, who plays Gilda, the object of the slightly scrambled affections of Leo (Robert Sella) and Otto (Tom Story), is a gawky, sparkling jolie laide who dominates every scene in which she appears....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted June 5, 2009 12:00 AM

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