This musical is based on the children’s horror novel by Neil Gaiman and, at least unofficially, on the extremely well-received animated movie based on the book that came out at nearly the same time. It’s a fascinating, cockeyed piece of experimentation with the musical form, but most of the qualities that made the film version such a stunning success are absent or go awry here.
First of all, the movie made groundbreakingly creative use of stop-motion, building on the innovations of its predecessor The Nightmare Before Christmas to create one of the most vivid and scariest fantasy worlds in all of animated film. The stage version, on the other hand, tries to turn its low budget into a deliberate aesthetic, with minimal props and actors not even making a cursory attempt to hide the fact that they’re doubling roles.
This isn’t a bad idea in itself, it has worked on many occasions before, and its execution here was actually quite clever and creative, but since the goal here is to create a visual impression of an insane dreamworld bound only by its own logic, I’m not sure a minimalist staging was the way to go. And in any case, the visual virtuosity that was the film’s primary appeal is largely lost here.
As for the music, Stephin Merrett, best known as the principal talent behind the Indie Rock band the Magnetic Fields, is one of the most gifted songwriters in his field, but very little of that comes through in his work here. The aggressively avant-garde score is thin, gimmicky, and lacking in variety, and is for the most part accompanied solely and entirely by a single toy piano, which gets old even faster than you might think. There are one or two pieces where the weirdness is actually interesting, like the utterly unique “When You’re a Cat” or the genuinely haunting “We Were Children Once”, but most of the time it’s just annoying and tediously simplistic.
And while some of the supporting players in the off-Broadway production did excellent work (particularly Julian Fleisher as a cynical cat and David Greenspan as the hammy villainess), one has to question whether casting the Fiftyish Jayne Houdyshell as the nine-year old title character was really necessary. There’s no doubt she’s a talented actress, and it’s not like this technique can’t work…plenty of shows over the years have managed to succeed with it, from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown to 25TH Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. But it’s an extremely tricky thing to pull off even in more normal shows, much less one like this that already asks so much of its audience in the way of suspending disbelief.
These problems don’t obliterate this show’s inherent fascination, and they do nothing to tarnish its undeniable originality and imagination, but they mean that, unlike in the film version, the show never manages to draw you inside the fantasy world that Coraline enters, which is kind of the point of the show in the first place.