Tuesday, June 2, 2009



By David Greenspan and Stephin Merritt, based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman. Directed by Leigh Silverman. MCC at the Lucille Lortel. (CLOSED)

While this adventurous Off-Broadway musicalization of Neil Gaiman's dark fairy tale has some full-throated partisans who find it an imagination-stirring romp, most reviews are decidedly mixed on the production's seam-showing, low-tech approach. Many praise Jayne Houdyshell's unlikely turn as the show's 9-year-old heroine and librettist David Greenspan's campy take on the villainous Other Mother, but Stephin Merritt's tinkly piano score gets mostly low marks for melody and variety, and both Greenspan's book and Leigh Silverman's direction get dinged for inconsistency and cutesy knowingness. Even many who are up for the ride and see much to admire in it complain of encroaching monotony.

Village Voice A+
(Michael Feingold) The big, glossy, efficiently tidy musicals often seen uptown, with nary a hair out of place, aren't an eighth as fresh or as much fun as Coraline...An obstinate, adorable, wayward brat of a musical, Coraline is scruffiness personified. And it's the quintessence of fresh—a musical with a score, by a noted rock musician, that's squarely in the musical-theater tradition and manages to pull off the magical double feat of never sounding either like just another piece of musical theater or like another recycled rock album trying to find its place on the stage. Coraline, gratifyingly, never sounds like anything but itself, from the ear-tickling overture, plinked at you by a phalanx of toy pianos as they creep out of the shadows, to the goofball finale, its moral warbled and tootled by the cast as they impersonate a marching band of trained circus mice. Scruffy never had it so good...Leigh Silverman's production not only enhances the work but fulfills it thematically.

Variety A
(David Rooney) Hand-tooled, proudly low-tech and endearingly mad...Whether or not the musical theater crowd warms to this wildly unconventional piece, it succeeds fully in harnessing the essence of three distinctive talents. It has Gaiman's magical blend of old-fashioned storytelling, modern fantasy, tight plotting and sly humor. It furthers the fascination with theatrical illusion that runs through Greenspan's work. And the voice of Merritt's music as frontman for bands including the Magnetic Fields and the 6ths comes through loud and clear in the droll lyrics and atonal melodies...Leigh Silverman's production is a bizarre but devilishly funny pantomime, its presentational style recalling John Doyle's stagings of "Sweeney Todd" and "Road Show." Design elements of the latter are echoed in Christine Jones' marvelous bric-a-brac-choked set, with the mountain of suitcases here replaced by a jumble of pianos and doors, doused in Ben Stanton's eerie lights...Even when it borders on the precious, the show is mesmerizing and original.

Backstage A
(Adam R. Perlman) A polished work of theater that feels marvelously like a bit of child's play. The production, presented by MCC Theater, hasn't been lavished with expensive special effects but with that special brand of make-believe that can turn a dreary afternoon magical...Age, gender, and race are like the bricked-up door in Coraline's flat—no obstacle for an imaginative young girl. Like her, you embrace the players and their game. The story they enact—a ghoulish tale of faded thespians, childless parents, and parentless children—seems ripe for musical treatment...Merritt's songs are like the spontaneous ditties you might have made up in your childhood backyard: singsongy, lilting, and sometimes taking unexpected turns...The stakes can feel a bit lightweight if you step back, but there are usually more than enough theatrical pleasures to keep you firmly invested in the present...Adults will find much to love in this child's entertainment, and, unlike in most overblown efforts, they'll be responding to the same things their kids do. There are no winking double-entendres, no references lobbed over the kids' heads. The joy of this family entertainment is seeing a superb group of theater artists exercising their imagination—and getting you to do the same.

The New York Times B
(Ben Brantley) Droll, dry and very cerebral...Less like a full-bodied show than the idea of one. It’s an intricately articulated skeleton to which flesh only occasionally adheres...A grown-up exercise in story theater that asks its audience to take a childlike leap of faith into fantasy. But the invitation is couched with such self-conscious craftsmanship that you wind up frozen in admiration of its elegance and inventiveness instead of taking that necessary step into make-believe. Though steeped in off-kilter charm, Coraline is too cool to be truly seductive...For me the most completely drawn character is a cat. Portrayed by Mr. Fleisher, who isn’t remotely feline-looking, this yawning, stretching Cat...has all the compelling self-containment and capriciousness of his species.

Theatermania B
(Dan Balcazo) Stephin Merritt's charming score to the new musical Coraline, presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel, is played largely on toy piano. That's just one of many bold choices in this adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel, featuring a book by David Greenspan and stylish direction by Leigh Silverman. While not every choice works, enough of them do to make the show a memorable and worthwhile experience...Christine Jones' set calls to mind a cluttered backstage, and indeed the production emphasizes its reliance on stage conventions...Greenspan's book is quite faithful to Gaiman's plot, but occasionally gets too bogged down in expository narration...It's easier to suspend your disbelief about some details more than others. The gender-bending done by Jue and Greenspan are easy enough to buy into -- particularly as both actors have such an overwhelming stage presence, and play their parts with panache...However, it's much more difficult to accept the central conceit that veteran actress Houdyshell is a small little girl. She pushes too hard, particularly towards the beginning of the piece, indicating her girlishness in too forced a fashion.

The Daily News B-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Offbeat and partially intriguing...Greenspan's story faithfully follows Neil Gaiman's best-selling novel and has written himself the juiciest role as the sinister Other Mother who terrorizes Coraline. Her/his defeat is a hoot, if not a yodel. Merritt, of the Magnetic Fields, is known for his quirky style and has come up with clever lyrics and an interesting plinkety-plinking piano score (including a toy spinet) that fits the kooky, spooky story...For all its virtues, the MCC presentation has issues. It's naggingly repetitive and, at 90 minutes, long outstays its welcome. This Coraline is wise, brave and tricky, yes. By the end, though, it's become trying.

The Wall Street Journal B-
(Terry Teachout) 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...Stephin Merritt...has written a self-assured score that is easily the best thing about the show...David Greenspan’s book is for the most part equally effective, a few overcompressed transitional passages notwithstanding...So far, so good—so what’s wrong? 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...I had so much difficulty with the way “Coraline” was performed that I’m not absolutely sure how good the show really is. Even so, I think it more than likely that it will be taken up by regional theaters looking for a small-scale children’s musical that appeals no less strongly to adults, and I offer two pieces of advice to the directors of these companies: (1) Cast a child as Coraline; (2) cut back sharply on the archness.

Bergen Record B-
(Robert Feldberg) Fascinating in its attempt to find a theatrical equivalent to the imaginative experience of reading the story...The songs, written by Stephin Merritt, are small and strange and often quite clever. They complement a book by David Greenspan that sticks closely to Gaiman’s account of the adventures of Coraline, a young English girl who passes through a corridor in her apartment to an evil parallel universe, and must struggle to return to her real parents. The story, full of psychological excursions into the meanings of home, family, independence and need, will reverberate with children of all ages. Most magically, there’s the remarkable portrayal of Coraline by Jayne Houdyshell, a plump actress in her 50s. From the moment she first appears, we unquestioningly accept Houdyshell as a young English girl..Coraline, however, doesn’t sustain its early promise. Alongside some murky storytelling, whimsy creeps in and becomes the tiresome monster that takes over the show. There’s also the feeling that a self-conscious devotion to process becomes more important than communicating with the audience.

The Hollywood Reporter B-
(Frank Scheck) Although this version of Coraline is unlikely to have the widespread appeal of the recent hit 3-D animated film, those with a taste for the decidedly offbeat could well turn it into a theatrical cult hit...Book writer David Greenspan's adaptation is choppy and disjointed, failing to compellingly capture the source material's narrative tension and making the evening feel much longer than the 100-minute running time. Merritt's score is equally problematic. Although the musical numbers demonstrate the prolific composer's ability to craft endless catchy melodies, many of the brief songs fail to cohere. And the fact that they're played mainly on such instruments as toy piano and "prepared" piano tend to give them a monotonous sameness...Director Leigh Silverman has staged the proceedings in an imaginatively low-tech fashion, with Christine Jones' abstract set design consisting of numerous pianos of different shapes and sizes, several doors and various pieces of antique bric-a-brac. The performers do well by their multiple roles, and Houdyshell is utterly winning as the vulnerable Coraline. For all the musical's inventiveness, however, audience members might ultimately relate all too well to the title character's growing unease with her bizarre surroundings.

Talkin' Broadway B-
(Matthew Murray) Lights up the Lucille Lortel Theatre with invention but, like its heroine, proves that not all adventures have entirely happy endings...Rather than writing a spiritless point-for-point adaptation like those so frequently seen on Broadway these days, or radically rethinking the style or locale for easier assimilation on these shores...Greenspan and director Leigh Silverman have mined the novel for the quirky and unpredictable spirit that so artfully captures imagination, elation, and terror as only children can experience them...Each of the seven performers in the production's nonstop cavalcade of an acting troupe are terrific...The only thing Coraline lacks - and it's unfortunately a biggie - is musical necessity...It's not just that the songs give you nothing to take away, it's that they take in nothing to give you...Coraline obviously isn't trying to be a conventional musical - and how could it ever be one? - but it still has the obligation to be listenable rather than merely bearable.

New York C+
(Stephanie Zacharek) The set, by Christine Jones, is a pleasing jumble of steampunky Victoriana, stocked with a selection of tired old pianos of all sizes and colors, which make a smart visual counterpart to Merritt’s eerie, plinky prepared-piano melodies...But the show’s modest, clever touches work only part of the time. Elsewhere, they have the DIY quality of a crude Christmas pantomime, winsome only to a point. As Coraline, Jayne Houdyshell (a 2006 Tony Award nominee for her role in Well) relies too much on that shoulder-shrugging, toe-stubbing “I don’t wanna grow up” affectation adopted by adults when they’re trying to act like little kids. Greenspan himself appears as Coraline’s “other” mother, flouncing about like a nightmare June Cleaver whose hair is inexplicbly done up in dreadlocks bedecked with tinsel. Campy touches like that only dilute the material’s delectably creepy undertones, an instance of fanciful vision giving way to button-eyed shortsightedness.

Time Out NY C+
(Adam Feldman) Given the dim-wittedness of so many modern musicals, it may seem churlish to find fault with this one for overthinking itself. But watching Coraline is a frustrating experience, precisely because a good deal of it is quite wonderful. Faithfully adapted by David Greenspan from Neil Gaiman’s delightful book, the show has a witty, elegantly evocative score by Stephin Merritt...Christine Jones’s set has an appealing antique junkiness, and much of the stage imagery is memorable. But Silverman can’t leave quirky enough alone. Treated more or less straight—as the National Theatre of Scotland did in its superb adaptation of Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Walls—this might have been an oddball triumph. Here, however, it’s hobbled by a deliberately poor choice of actors, almost across the board, to suit a fussy-cute conception of the material.

Just Shows To Go You C+
(Patrick Lee) You think of words like “uncompromising” and “integrity” as you watch Stephen Merritt’s musical of the enormously popular children’s tale. The score’s strange, angular melodies as primarily played on a single tinkling keyboard, the casting of mature Jane Houdyshell as the adventure-seeking nine year old heroine, the avoidance of anything that smacks of gratuitous crowd-pleasing: a unique artistic vision has been rigorously followed and realized. But it’s hard to feel anything besides detached appreciation for the show’s uniqueness: despite a uniformly wonderful cast and many isolated performance moments that tempt the imagination, the production is curiously remote and short on the inventive theatricality that would showcase the very special material to advantage.

CurtainUp C+
(Simon Saltzman) As the titular character, the courageous Houdyshell is not only totally believable in a role significantly far from her own age but also delightful...She is the heart and soul of a musical that unfortunately is constructed around too many incredulously conceived and performed characters...If [Silverman] has purposely blurred the boundary that separates a dream from reality, she has succeeded. Where her direction falters is in not keeping a tighter rein on the essential group of supporting actors who unfortunately drift in their portrayals between the amateurish and the acquiescent...There is evidence that Greenspan has labored rigorously to grace the short novel (first published in 2002) with a conspicuously audacious sense of theatricality. Much of it, however, falls as flat as the singing, with Houdyshell the notable exception...Set Designer Christine Jones and lighting designer Ben Stanton have done a super job creating a basic environment of musty fixtures and relics that transposes itself from the mundane to the mysterious and foreboding with a minimum of ado and fuss...In considering Merritt's score, in which the soured notes follow one another gainfully and mercifully without bumping into each other, there is occasionally something to admire in the lyrics.

AM New York C+
(Matt Windman) Rather than turn “Coraline” into a conventional children’s musical, rock singer-songwriter Stephen Merritt and downtown playwright-performer David Greenspan have opted for a decidedly off-kilter, otherworldly and openly theatrical production that resembles John Doyle’s creepy actor-musician revival of “Sweeney Todd” more than perhaps “Shrek"...While the score itself is not enjoyable and tends to slow down the story rather than build upon it, it at least manages to be unique...Houdyshell, who is a wonderful actress, captures Coraline’s plucky youthful spirit, but it makes no sense for the actress playing Coraline to be as big as everyone else. Meanwhile, Greenspan is awkward and unthreatening as Coraline’s nemesis. The rest of the small ensemble – which plays multiple roles including mice and ghosts – keeps the production grounded in a spirit of theatrical ingenuity. Regardless of whether they agree with its artistic choices, fans of the story will probably get a kick out of this unconventional musical treatment.

Entertainment Weekly C
(Jeremy Medina) Something got lost in translation: The characters and plot might be the same, but the tone is inconsistent and off. Thanks to the sharp but distinctly exaggerated performances — particularly Greenspan as the Other Mother, whose bizarre affectations are grandiosely over-the-top — this version has much more humor. The humor lends the production its own identity, but it does not capture the spirit of Gaiman's work...The serviceable music by Stephin Merritt, best known as the frontman for avant-garde indie rock group The Magnetic Fields, is well integrated into the story, but ultimately lacks punch. The lone element that's truly memorable is the haunting toy piano score used throughout. As the play advances toward its anti-climactic finale, the songs are tossed aside in favor of far too much exposition. Much is told, and too little is shown. For a story that celebrates imagination, that's a serious shortcoming.

New York Post D+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) The single greatest idea in Coraline was to cast middle-age Jayne Houdyshell in the title role, a 9-year-old girl...Her characterization of a bold, resourceful little heroine is spot-on...Aside from that coup, however, Coraline is surprisingly unimaginative. With David Greenspan penning the book and the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt in charge of the score, this musical had an intriguing creative team. That the show turns out so flat and timid is a crushing letdown...Gaiman's droll, matter-of-fact creepiness is completely lost in this diffident translation. Despite occasionally clever rhyming schemes, Merritt's songs aren't all that interesting melodically, a problem compounded by their being played exclusively (by Phyllis Chen) on various pianos. This burdens the tunes with a monochromatic sonic palette they just aren't strong enough to overcome. Director Leigh Silverman only makes things worse. It boggles the mind that such a project would be entrusted to someone with zero visual sense. Her staging of the various worlds is completely confusing, and she can't even render the novel's best, most macabre invention (the Other denizens have buttons for eyes). Silverman also shows little control over the supporting cast, which flails in a variety of roles.

VV A+ 14; Variety A 13; Backstage A 13; The New York Times B 10; Theatermania B 10; The Daily News B- 9; WSJ B- 9; Bergen Record B- 9; The Hollywood Reporter B- 9; Talkin' Broadway B- 9; New York C+ 8; TONY C+ 8; JSTGY C+ 8; CurtainUp C+ 8; AM New York C+ 8; Entertainment Weekly C 7; New York Post D+ 5; TOTAL: 157 / 17 = 9.24 (B-)


Aaron Riccio said...

Makes me a little sad to see Vincentelli smack down Silverman as a visual director--guess she didn't see "From Up Here" and "Well," or maybe she just forgot to specify that for "Coraline" alone, her vision was dimmed, rather than sparked, by Gaiman's work.

I saw an early preview, but the reviews more or less stand up with what I saw (monotony with brief asides of camp, a solid performance from Houdyshell and a scene stealing finale from Greenspan). The one thing I'd add is that the creative team accurately made an INDIE musical. Aside from a version of "A Christmas Carol" done at the Vortex Theater a few years back, this is the first real indie musical. Nobody ever said that was a good thing. (In the vein of dark children's stories: "Be careful what you wish for.")

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

I did see both "Well" and "From Up Here." I find no fault with Silverman's work there, even if I enjoyed the former show a lot more because the script is much stronger.

That said, I stand by what I wrote in my review: Silverman is much better at drama that's more grounded in "real life" than she is at handling this fantastical world. I felt "Coraline" was resolutely untheatrical in its staging. (I expand a bit on this point and issues of directions in this blog post: http://blogs.nypost.com/theater/archives/2009/06/whos-at-the-hel.html)

Elisabeth Vincentelli

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

P.S. I would argue that Cynthia Hopkins's "The Success of Failure" at St. Ann's also is an indie musical. There as well, be careful what you wish for.

Aaron Riccio said...

Fair enough E, thanks for the clarification. I only meant that the way the line reads in your review ("It boggles the mind that such a project would be entrusted to someone with zero visual sense") makes it seem as if you always find Silverman's work to lack visual sense, when in truth, you're really just irritated that she didn't bring any of that common sense to Coraline.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

But don't you think the last thing "Coraline" needs is common sense? That show is tethered to the ground.

I suppose a better way to put it would be visual imagination. For "Coraline," you did need an eye and a love for theatrical tricks. It's significant that one of the book's biggest visual ideas (eyes as buttons sewn onto the face) is lost in the show--the dark glasses with crosses on them didn't work at all for me.

Aaron Riccio said...

Sorry, I don't know where "common" slipped out of (on my part). I meant to say "visual sense," but even our definitions there are different. You're talking about the stage magic--which is a form of craft as much as of visuals--as opposed to just the aesthetic. For instance, "Well" (agreeably the stronger of the two examples I used, thanks to Kron) was filled with a colorful VISUAL flair whenever it flittered away from the playwright. And "From Up Here" had delightful visual departures from the grounded nature of the play (with the rock-climbing thing), though I agree that's hardly the "magical realism" needed here.

I wasn't thrilled with the two-dimensionality of the set, or how dark BOTH worlds ended up being. (I needed more than a light tubes worth of difference.) I'm disappointed that the "flattening" effect from the book didn't show up on stage. And I think that Silverman's direction was about as minimal here as it was for "Yellow Face." We're very much agreeing.

Where we differ is that I think Silverman had the capacity to find and channel the dark whimsy necessary, and simply didn't. And from the sort of thing you describe as needing/wanting from Coraline, you don't feel that she's ever exhibited that range. Which is also a fair point. I also agree that the Improbable people were a better fit (I'm dreading Addams Family, but with fingers crossed)--out of curiosity, since we've got a little dialogue going, who else do you think could've captured the essence of this play?

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

I think Improbable would have been the best choice. Julian Crouch was involved with both "Shockheaded Peter" and the National Theatre of Scotland's production of another Gaiman book, "The Wolves in the Walls," and both shows were terrific. Tony Taccone did a great job with "Brundibar" a few years back. Or why not someone like Alex Timbers? He really gets theatrical trickery.

Going further afield, I'd be curious as to what Ivo van Hove and Romeo Castellucci would come up with. The former hasn't done a fantasy show that I know of and the latter hasn't done narrative, but their stuff looks great. Granted, this could be a total disaster!

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Another intriguing choice would be to sic Elizabeth LeCompte on this Gaiman book. A lot of his work is a reworking of classic tales anyway, so it'd be fun to see someone used to dismantling texts work on his stuff. Then we're getting into the multimedia techies: Peter Sellars? Robert Lepage?

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

David Cromer. His "Adding Machine" was great. I'll stop now!

Aaron Riccio said...

I love it. Of all the people you suggested, I'd love to see what Cromer did--especially since he's got experience working with musicals. I think Ivo von Hove's version would definitely convince parents NOT to bring their children, but I'm not sure the source material is rich enough for his sort of savagery.

I think Anne Bogart would've found a neat approach--for that matter, anyone who has directed Ruhl. Anne Kauffman, too, might've done well in this context. And, just to throw one out of left field--I think Oliver Butler (especially after "A Thought About Raya") could find that weirdly dark childishness.

Anonymous said...

I love it ! Very creative ! That's actually really cool Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Are you all INSANE!!!! This show SUCKS!!!! Its a complete disgrace to Gaiman's work. The music is garbage! The singing stinks!! How can you have a 50 year old woman playing Coraline!!! Are you crazy!! This has to be the worst score I have ever heard in my entire life! A kidnergartener could write better music! I can't believe this even made it to off-broadway and I can't believe that people would give it good reviews. If you want to see the amazing story of Gaiman's stabbed with a knife and twisted 1000 times than by all means sit through 1 hour and thirty minutes of torture. Its crap!!!