The novel is an international best seller, the movie has grossed over $80 million, there’s a movie tie-in edition, a movie collector’s edition, a graphic novel, a visual companion, and a video game, and now a brilliant group of New York theater people have produced a musical play.
This makes sense. This production, however, in its intense and imaginative focus on the weird visual effects and surrealistic juxtapositions, loses somewhat the thread of the human story.
Coraline — like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the Darling children in Peter Pan, Clara in The Nutcracker — escapes the world of busy grown-ups and their rules for fantasyland. For Coraline, adventure lies in an apartment on the other side of a magic door — like Dorothy’s mirror — from her own.
Past that door everything — furniture, Mother, Father, stray occupants — are the same but not quite the same as what she’s left behind. At first, the differences spell “freedom.” The Other Mother will give her everything she wants! Wow! But the dark side emerges, the Other Mother is a soul-stealer, ghostly children with button eyes appear, her previous conquests. She kidnaps Coraline’s true parents. The Good Witch of the North is really the Wicked Witch of the East.
How will Coraline escape and free her parents? Through a clever game, with the help of a black cat and a special stone. I think. At least that’s what I heard mentioned. But I never really saw how it happened.
How Coraline succeeds in tricking the wicked Other Mother is lost amidst the extravagant visuals, and some arbitrary magic. Solutions are handed over too easily to special effects. Coraline, the story, already deemed a classic, is about working out problems for oneself, and coming to appreciate sometimes humdrum loving parents, and love as we have it in our bothersome real world. It’s a story of growing up, and we need to see that. But the production skimps on the psychological development and that, even amidst the clever moments, limits ones engagement. Coraline is smart at the start and smart at the end, and that’s about it.
Still, there are extraordinary images and witty word play, as well as sophisticated disjunctions that provoke big laughs. Jayne Houdyshell as a mature actress and a convincing pre-teen Coraline at one and the same time is an ongoing fascination, and for this surreal production, a brilliant choice. David Greenspan plays unforgettably the defeated Other Mother falling down a deep well for a very very long time — I wouldn’t mind seeing the play over just to see him do that again. Julian Fleischer as the mature, thoughtful, upright talking cat makes the slinky ones in “Cats” seem really tacky. The songs are wonderfully rhymed; they’re hilarious, a highlight.