After the very enjoyable 3-D animated movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline released less than a year ago, how can the lowly theatre possible answer the heights of imagination made possible by computer technology? Stephin Merritt and David Greenspan's off-Broadway musical adaptation in a production by Leigh Silverman at MCC Theater finds just the right answer - a deliciously low-tech musical adaptation that makes all the right choices. In it a young girl with overly busy parents moves to a new house with 21 windows and 14 doors (13 that open and close and one that doesn't) is as unexpected a take on the story as you are likely to see. It creates its physical universe as well as its musical score from toy and full-sized pianos, a veteran Broadway and regional actor well into middle age plays the title role and the actors playing her parents are easily 25 years her junior, her "other mother" is played by a man, there are no cat-suits or masks, the magic 14th door through which Coraline passes into an alternate universe containing another house and another set of parents is about 2-feet square and is carried on-stage by an actor, and the sophisticated lyrics find a rhyme for the word 'zaftig.' The production is nearly pitch-perfect. There are no special effects, no dancing teacups, the actors do not wear microphones. They tell this story with words and talent. When Coraline walks from inside to outside, she tells us it is so and it is. It worked for Shakespeare. The actor playing the cat sits atop an upright piano, contributing to the musical score by stepping on the keys.
There are so many delightful touches to this swift-moving, imaginative production. The cast is basically great and David Greenspan's Other Mother (he also wrote the book) delivers a spendidly evil performance with a tour-de-force sung monologue as she falls down the well. A few of the actors cannot seem to resist mugging, they seem a little too used to the stereotypical cutsie Broadway idiom. Francis Jue, thought he is energetically talented, cannot seem to resist guilding the lily a lot with most of the roles he plays. Jane Houdyshell is marvelous, although she does that thing that adults playing children sometimes do (particularly for the first 30 minutes of the show) that screams not just "I am a child" but "I am a loose limbed idiot-child." Cut it out Jane. It's insulting to children and it's not cute. The whole beauty of this terrific production is that it is theatre. No excuse has to be made for the casting and production choices. They are perfect. People play multiple roles without regard to race, age, or even species and acting is all you need. You don't have to play the fact that Coraline is seven, or whatever age she is. Trust that you're good enough. Children can be adult-like too, you know. Aside from these occasional attacks of the cutsies, this is a wonderful show, well worth seeing if you are near NYC before it closes on July 5. My hope is they will extend. Meanwhile, tickets can be found here.