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Stephin Merritt and David Greenspan's musical adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel is full of bold choices.

Francis Jue, Jayne Houdyshell, Elliot Villar and
William Youmans in Coraline
(© Joan Marcus)
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.

The story follows nine-year-old Coraline Jones (Jayne Houdyshell), who has recently moved into a new house with her parents (Francis Jue and January LaVoy). One rainy afternoon, she discovers a door that seemingly opens onto a brick wall. But when she tries the door again later, she finds it leads to a world similar to her own, but also quite different, and ruled over by her Other Mother (Greenspan), who wants to sew buttons onto Coraline's eyes and keep her there forever.

Christine Jones' set calls to mind a cluttered backstage, and indeed the production emphasizes its reliance on stage conventions. The door that Coraline goes through is represented by a small hand-held unit that is brought out as needed. The majority of the actors play multiple parts, donning a hat or a shawl in plain view of the audience, to signify the shift in character. Even some of the lyrics emphasize the magic of the stage; for example, two elderly actresses (also played by Jue and LaVoy) sing: "Theatre is grand! / You've got the world at your command; / You simply say -- / 'I'm in Hawaii' / And you're there. / You can be Antigone / Or Cher!"

Greenspan's book is quite faithful to Gaiman's plot, but occasionally gets too bogged down in expository narration. However, fans of the novel (or the recent stop-motion animated film, also based upon it) should be pleased with how some of the specific aspects of the piece are transformed into the language of the stage. (Coraline's discovery of the three ghost children is particularly well done.)

Still, 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. Greenspan is particularly entertaining to watch, with his high pitched voice sounding convincingly female, and his over-the-top final exit is one of the production's highlights.

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. And while she has a pleasant singing voice, she strains to hit some of her higher notes (and doesn't always succeed).

In the supporting roles, Julian Fleisher does a marvelous job as the Cat, moving with a feline grace that's not over exaggerated, but instead perfectly captures his character's peculiar combination of aloofness, superiority, and concern. Looking dapper in his black suit with green accents (the costumes are by Anita Yavich), he is the epitome of cool. William Youmans, Elliot Villar, and LaVoy all handle their multiple roles well enough, and the ensemble numbers are some of the strongest. The production is also blessed to have pianist Phyllis Chen, whose program bio indicates she is an accomplished toy pianist (and founder of a toy piano competition). She also plays larger versions of the piano during the show, and her accompaniment is crucial to the sound and style of the musical.