Behind the mysterious door
by Richard Dodds
For Coraline Jones, 2009 was a very good year. First her freaky-Freudian through-the-looking-glass story became a successful animated feature, and then some very interesting adaptors made her the star of an off-Broadway musical. Coraline, the musical, is now having its West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse, and a curious affair it is indeed.
Neil Gaiman's 2002 sophisticated novel of juvenile terrors has been adapted for the stage by David Greenspan, a gay legend of New York's "downtown" theater scene and a purveyor of camp as high modernism. SF Playhouse previously produced Greenspan's She Stoops to Comedy, a farce in which cross-dressing is doubled then squared.
While there is no gay content in Coraline, Greenspan shares with Gaiman a kind of queer sensibility where little Coraline shares a creaky house with dotty old actresses, a mysterious trainer of circus rodents, and a talkative cat with a lot of attitude. The only boring people around are her workaholic parents, who can barely bother to acknowledge her when they cross paths. No wonder she goes looking for a new family in all the wrong places.
The original New York production was certainly more transgressive than what director Bill English has brought to SF Playhouse. For one thing, and it's a big thing, 11-year-old Coraline was played by the middle-aged and amply proportioned actress Jayne Houdyshell, whom you might remember as Lisa Kron's invalid mother in Well at ACT. This counter-casting immediately yanks us into an alternate reality. At SF Playhouse, Coraline is being played by the age-appropriate Julia Belanoff and Maya Donato on alternate nights, and while Donato was pleasant, perky, and professional at the final preview, it's a casting choice that tamps down the surrealism in favor of the ordinary.
In New York, Greenspan himself cross-dressed into the role of Other Mother, the increasingly sinister maternal force that Coraline discovers on the other side of a mysterious door. This must have further added to the off-kilter aura, though I think it also makes theatrical sense to have both Coraline's Mother and Other Mother played by the same actress. And that's especially true if you have the estimable Stacy Ross in the roles. The father figures are played with a henpecked frailty by Jackson Davis.
Maureen McVerry and Susi Damilano merrily played the elderly former showgirls, and Brian Degan Scott periodically pops in with his miniature bigtop housing his acrobatic mice. Brian Yates Sharber quite deliciously plays the acerbic cat, who seems to know all the answers to the secrets held by this old house.
Lest we have forgotten, this Coraline is a musical, but music is not the first word that comes to mind upon hearing the songs that Stephin Merritt has provided. Merritt is best known as the lead singer and songwriter for the Magnetic Fields, a quirky group whose fungible sound is variously described as synthpop, indie pop, noise pop, and folk pop. After hearing 25 of his songs for Coraline, I'm hard pressed to find much of any musicality in his compositions here, and as performed by a cast not geared toward melodic interpretations. The lyrics do carry some prickly energy, which is perhaps the best description of the music as well.
What this production does have is ample imagination that can weave a fantastic world from simple things. But that may not be enough. Coraline, as a book and as a movie, created scary worlds that both children and adults could happily, if a bit trepidatiously, enter. The Coraline at SF Playhouse doesn't seem to know quite what tune it should be playing.
Coraline will run at SF Playhouse through Jan. 15. Tickets are $30-$50. Call 677-9596 or go to www.sfplayhouse.org.