Neil Gaiman’s 2002 children’s novel “Coraline” explores an unsettling world of dark enchantment that has drawn comparisons to the creations of Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis. This bewitching fairy tale has also become a mini-franchise, spawning a P. Craig Russell graphic novel, a videogame, Henry Selick’s hypnotically creepy stop-motion animated film and more than one international stage version. The latest and most ambitious of them is a hand-tooled, proudly low-tech and endearingly mad Off Broadway musical written by maverick theater artist David Greenspan, with music and lyrics by the Kurt Weill of indie rock, Stephin Merritt.
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.
These are played by Phyllis Chen on a piano “orchestra” that includes toys, traditionals and a prepared piano with sound-altering objects attached to the strings in the manner pioneered by John Cage in the 1940s.
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.
After so many literal musical adaptations of existing material that overillustrate while displaying too little invention of their own, there’s something delightful about the way “Coraline” demands giant leaps of imagination from its audience.
The biggest of these lies in the casting of fiftysomething Jayne Houdyshell as precocious 9-year-old adventurer Coraline. That turns out to be oddly easy to accept thanks to Houdyshell’s understated approach to channeling the curiosity, impulsiveness, petulant mood swings, tireless determination, fears and recklessness of children.
Imagination as a hallmark of theater is itself a key component, commented upon with a wink by Coraline’s former thespian neighbors the Misses Spink and Forcible (January LaVoy and Francis Jue) as they reminisce in song about their life on the boards: “You simply say/I’m in Hawaii/And you’re there/You can be Antigone/Or Cher!” And imagination also provides the show with its vivid access to both the wonder and terror of childhood.
Entirely faithful to Gaiman’s book, the story takes up with bored Coraline soon after she moves into a flat in an old converted house with her loving but distracted parents (able multitaskers LaVoy and Jue again). Despite warnings, she unlocks a mysterious door and enters an alternate-reality replica of her own home, with perfect parents and more colorful versions of her neighbors — all with buttons for eyes. This strange, initially seductive world is ruled over by the Other Mother (Greenspan), whose warm welcome gives way to trickery as she reveals her plan to sew buttons onto Coraline’s eyes and keep her there forever.
When Coraline returns home to find her real mother and father missing, she enlists the help of an inscrutable black cat (a sublimely disdainful Julian Fleisher). She then crosses the threshold again to do battle with the Other Mother for her parents and for the souls of three dead children trapped in limbo in the evil replicant’s fabricated world.
Gaiman is a cracking good storyteller, weaving a message about children finding the courage to overcome their fears into his suspenseful fable without an ounce of sentimentality. The author’s hymn to seeking adventure is well served by the fearless pair of Greenspan and Merritt, who balance wry detachment with wide-eyed immersion in the tale’s fantasy world. Even when it borders on the precious, the show is mesmerizing and original.
Merritt’s plink-plonk songs (all untitled) may not be his most tuneful, but they fit the weird atmosphere, and the deadpan wit of his lyrics is matched by real skill in nudging along the narrative.
Much of the charm comes from the artisanal simplicity of the visual devices — Spink and Forcible’s terriers are a box of fluffy heads; the ghost children are eerie stick puppets; the fateful door is a framed miniature. Costumer Anita Yavich is similarly resourceful with minimal means. The cape of mice worn by Elliot Villar’s Mr. Bobo is a craft-project gem, while Fleisher’s feline costume is a smartly tailored black suit and porkpie hat. Sound effects, most of them achieved via piano keys, strings and lids, are a constant source of humor.
With the unfailingly real Houdyshell as its mascot, Silverman’s cast is valiantly in synch with the eccentric enterprise.
Slinking around in a utilitarian apron whose transparent pockets are filled with sewing tools, Greenspan is the standout, his florid gesticulations and arch delivery animating a villainess as saccharine as she is sinister. The Other Mother’s song as she falls down an endless well is an audaciously extended cabaret performance piece, but as one of the chief architects of this idiosyncratic show, Greenspan earns that moment of shameless — and hilarious — self-indulgence.