From the outset, the MCC Theater’s Off Broadway musical adaptation of Coraline is at a disadvantage, given that many have just seen the definitive version of the story mere months ago. Henry Selick’s eye-poppingly gorgeous stop-motion animation film so wondrously encapsulated the sinister merriment of Neil Gaiman’s celebrated children’s novel, it raises the question of what a new adaptation could do to improve upon it.
The new stage production takes a different approach altogether — a fact that is immediately evident by the show’s curious casting choices. Fifty-something stage veteran Jayne Houdyshell plays Coraline, the story’s plucky preteen who falls down a rabbit hole into an alternate reality inhabited by button-eyed doppelganger versions of her parents. At first, Coraline’s Other Mother (played by David Greenspan, also credited as the librettist) and Other Father (William Youmans) seem like the perfect parents. They lavish Coraline with love and praise, gift her with a room filled with lifelike toys that sing and dance, and provide her with a world where anything and everything could be hers. But like the clever girl she is, Coraline soon catches wise to dark forces at work.
In the Playbill, Greenspan says the show is meant to be a faithful adaptation of Gaiman’s source material. If that’s true, 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 beauty of Gaiman’s gothic fairy tale is its inclination to show childhood as a not so fantastical time. Like a spiritual cousin of the works of Lewis Carroll or Roald Dahl, it suggests that beneath the fun and games lies endless passages of boredom — boredom interrupted only by the escape into an alternate reality of one’s imagination, a new world that’s brimming with possibility, excitement, and danger. But that’s exactly what’s missing here: a sense of danger. The characters are too broadly comic to be threatening, robbing the story of any tension.
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. C
(Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com)