"Coraline": Even Stephin Merritt can't save SF Playhouse's disappointing musical

Sometimes an idea is so good that it can't get out of its own way. When I first heard about the musical adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel Coraline, I practically peed myself in spite of the hostile reviews dogging last year's New York premiere. A dark, twisted kids' show with music and lyrics by Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields? I mean, could that be anything but total genius?

In a word, yes. Now making its West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse under the direction of Bill English, Coraline is clever and ambitious, but so enamored of its own cleverness that it fails to engage, let alone entertain.

That's especially surprising when you consider the talent behind the show. Gaiman's novel is a creepy tribute to every kid's most unsettling nightmares: think Alice in Wonderland as reimagined by an especially nasty Roald Dahl, with a little E.T.A. Hoffman thrown in to make your skin crawl. It served as the basis for last year's film version directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas), an eerie and entrancing exercise in stop-motion animation that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.

Even with music by Stephin Merritt, this production hits the wrong notes.
Jessica Palopoli
Even with music by Stephin Merritt, this production hits the wrong notes.

Details

Through Jan. 15 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. $30-$50; 677-9596 or www.sfplayhouse.org.

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Merritt is a singer-songwriter who delivers wry, witty, depressive lyrics in an endearingly untrained voice. He collaborated on Coraline with playwright David Greenspan, an Off-Broadway fixture whose cerebral, metatheatrical plays include the gender-bending romp She Stoops to Comedy (featured last season at SF Playhouse).

Despite all that talent, Coraline feels underdeveloped — like a long succession of good ideas somehow stuck in the draft stage. The play is often atmospheric but never dramatic, in part because it relies too much on baldly expository dialogue to move the story forward. (Our heroine shouldn't need to say "I'm outside now" when she steps outside, but such spoken stage directions are littered throughout.) The play is neither as funny nor as scary as it should be, though it's hard to tell whether that's the fault of the material or of the lackluster staging. My hunch is that it's a little bit of both.

Gaiman's novel is frightening because it dabbles in what Freud famously called the Uncanny, or the Unheimlich (literally "unhomelike") — the creeping sensation that arises when you find yourself in a place both like and unlike home, both like and unlike the familiar. When a mysterious rift occurs in otherwise familiar surroundings, or when you see a face that looks human but isn't quite human, the effect can dredge up a whole slew of anxieties and primal fears.

The novel, film, and musical versions of the story follow the same basic plot, but only the novel and film manage to create a truly uncanny effect. Little Coraline (Maya Donato, alternating with Julia Belanoff) has just moved into a colorless new apartment with her overworked, inattentive parents (Stacy Ross and Jackson Davis). She's restless and bored until she discovers a door leading to a parallel world — a world in which her "Other Mother" and "Other Father" dote on her, and where her brightly lit bedroom is full of singing and dancing toys.

Only one thing seems off: her Other Mother and Other Father have big black buttons instead of eyes. Coraline can stay with them forever if she sews buttons over her eyeballs, too. Sensible enough to recognize a creepy situation when she sees one, she tries to escape, only to discover that her real parents have been imprisoned in a snow globe. It's up to her to set things right, of course.

Based on that synopsis, you wouldn't be crazy to think that Merritt's songs ought to mark a clear boundary between Coraline's two realities. Yet besides a few lively numbers when the girl meets her Other Parents, the score is remarkably monotonous; the melodies and textures remain pretty much the same throughout the show, with no song registering as particularly memorable. Maybe that's because Merritt wrote his score for toy and prepared pianos, quickly exhausting the possibilities afforded by their plink-plink-plinking. But that can't be the whole reason — even lush accompaniment couldn't hide the fact that both music and lyrics lack the energy and wit of the songs he has composed for the Magnetic Fields.

Weak material aside, SF Playhouse's production simply doesn't click. The actors are a hardworking bunch, but only Ross delivers a truly standout performance; her fiendish Other Mother hisses and snarls her way into the audience's affections. English's set is whimsical and attractive, but fails to overcome the challenges posed by a script that doesn't always provide natural transitions from one location to the next. Michael Oesch's lighting adds little richness or depth to the visual landscape. Erika Chong Shuch's choreography seems to be going for a childlike sense of improvisational movement, but the effect is sometimes more sloppy than necessary. The one technical standout is Christopher W. White's elegantly sinister puppetwork, delivering the production's most arresting visuals by far.

In short, Coraline is a near-total disappointment — all the more disappointing if you're the sort of person who could use a little twisted counterprogramming to get you through the nonstop cheerfulness of the holidays. Here's hoping that Daniel Handler's The Composer Is Dead, just opening at Berkeley Rep, will provide the darkly funny thrills Coraline fails to deliver. Otherwise we're in for a very long month.

 
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