Brian Degan Scott as Mr. Bobo and Maya Donato as Coraline in the SF Playhouse production of Coraline. Below: Scott (left), Stacy Ross and Jackson Davis. Photos by Jessica Palopoli.
A door presents itself. You enter. Suddenly you’re immersed in a warped version of reality.
That’s what happens to 9-year-old Coraline, the heroine of Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name when she unlocks a door in her creaky new house. And that’s what happens to audiences that venture into Coraline the musical by David Greenspan (book) and Stephin Merritt (music and lyrics) now at SF Playhouse.
This looks like a children’s musical, but there’s a twist. Things are pretty creepy in this tweak-y world. And it sort of sounds like a musical, though this is about as far away from Rodgers and Hammerstein as you can get and still be in a theater.
SF Playhouse’s Coraline looks just right. The black-and-white set (by director Bill English and Matt Vuolo) looks like a storybook haunted house, and when Coraline slips through that locked door and enters an alternate reality, Michael Osch’s lights kick into blacklight gear, with fluorescent colors cracking the darkness. The same is true of Valera Coble’s costumes – shades of black, white and gray give way to crispy fluorescents once Coraline encounters the mirror-image “others” on the other side of the door. Oh, and the others also come equipped with button eyes – a truly creepy feature.
The 90-minute show begins with the entire cast gathered around toy pianos, plunking out indecipherable melodies. Then the musical duties are handed over to musical director Robert Moreno (tucked behind the set), who is playing piano, toy piano and prepared piano (prepared with nuts, bolts, playing cards, earplugs, paperclips and anything else handy that might warp and twist Merritt’s music).
As much as I wanted to, I did not enjoy Coraline. It’s a half-hearted musical that never comes fully to life. Henry Selick’s movie version was much livelier and a lot more fun. Greenspan’s book follows the Gaiman novel pretty faithfully (more than the movie does), but Merritt’s music is challenging to the point of being dull. There’s an occasional flash of humor or snippet of melody to latch onto, and the musical mayhem toward the end is interesting. But the score mostly drones and plunks and fizzles. It’s like when Danny Elfman wrote music for The Nightmare Before Christmas – it should have been much better than it was, but Elfman, like Merritt, comes from the pop world and doesn’t really seem to know or care how songs function in a musical.
That said, I adored 12-year-old Maya Donato as Coraline (she alternates in the role with Julia Belanoff). With a crisp British accent, she essentially carries the show and serves as our tour guide through the weirdness. Stacy Ross also shines as Other Mother, the button-eyed villainess intent upon enticing Coraline into her twisted lair. The bigger Ross’ hair gets, the more fun she is. By the end of the show, she has become a spider-like version of a giant hand, complete with bright red fingernail polish (puppets are by Christopher W. Wright).
Susi Damilano and Maureen McVerry are having fun as Miss Forcible and Miss Spink, two old-maid actresses who live in the flat above Coraline and her family. With their herd of terriers, these doddering old ladies get the best song in the show, “Theatre Is Fun.”
The whiff of Oz and Wonderland pervade Gaiman’s world, though it’s not as much fun as any of its progenitors. Musically speaking, the show comes to life only at the end, as the ensemble – which also includes Jackson Davis, Brian Degan Scott and Brian Yates Sharber – sings “One Long Fairytale,” which encourages youngsters to “keep chasing your tale.” That’s good advice. The chase may lead to tales even more interesting than this one.
Read my interview with composer Stephin Merritt in the San Francisco Chronicle. Click here.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Coraline continues through Jan. 15 at SF Playhouse, 588 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$50. Call 415 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information.