"Coraline" (the show, not the novel or the animated film)
I've liked Stephin Merritt's music with his various East Village bands (especially Magnetic Fields and their "69 Love Songs"). I liked it so much that I hooked him up with my friend Chen Shi-zheng, whom I had originally hired to direct the 18-hour "Peony Pavilion" production at the Lincoln Center Festival. They collaborated on three Sino-American musical plays at such venues as the Lincoln Center Theater, the American Repertory Theater and Cal Arts. "Sino-American" meant ancient Chinese stories updated into a kind of hybrid Chinese-American style. Music from those plays was released on a Nonesuch CD.
So the fact that Merritt had written music and lyrics (and clearly had played a key role in the gestation) of a staged musical version of "Coraline" drew me to it -- rather late in the run at the Lucille Lortele Theater in Manhattan; it closes July 5.
"Coraline" was first a novel by Neil Gaiman, about a little girl who discovers a disturbing mirror world behind a bricked-up door in her new house. The world is clearly in her imagination, the dark side of her own new world. The novel has been turned into an animated film in which the girl's voice is Dakota Fanning's. And now this show, which is my own first and only exposure to this material.
Hence no judgments from me on the fidelity of the show to the novel, or its success vis-a-vis the movie. With a book by David Greenspan and direction by Leigh Silverman, the show has divided critics and audiences. (I was gripped and my companion hated it.)
What allures and repels are the strange, creepy undercurrents of the tale and this version of it. Merritt's music, sung by the cast with tinkly, toy-piano-like accompaniment (indefatiguably played by Phyllis Chen), has a cold, campy aura. It's childlike yet clinical. The choice of the decidedly matronly Jayne Houdyshell to play little Coraline strikes some as absurd and others, like me, as inspired; her warmth offsets the brittleness all around her.
The whole cast, in which most of the actors play mutiple roles, is dazzlingly accomplished, and Silverman's staging (in Christine Jones's clever, overstuffed setting) is brilliant in its quicksilver changes of scene and mood. If you're in New York and have the time and can get in, I would argue that it's more than worth a visit. My friend would disagree, but if you're reading this blog, you probably have some sympathy for my sensibility, so trust me!
If wer're lucky, it will be revived somewhere. And given my own initial interest, it marks another step forward in Merritt's evolution into a practiced composer for the modern musical theater. To enjoy his cavernous bass voice, though, I guess you'll just have to keep buying (or downloading) his recordings.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.