Friday, June 12, 2009

Coraline (or, A Theatrical Concept Album)

All season, I'd been anticipating MCC's Coraline. It's got some top-notch artists: a novel by Neil Gaiman adapted by Stephin Merritt (of Magnetic Fields) and David Greenspan (of some truly mesmerizing perfs off-B'way). Director Leigh Silverman brought out some of Off-B'way's most interesting talents, starting with an imaginative flair by casting middle-aged Jayne Houdyshell as a nine-year-old.

The story (if you missed the quite good animated movie) sees the bored titular kid exploring her new suburban home. She's especially curious about a bricked-off door which, at night, becomes a portal to a mirror universe. There she finds her Other Mother, who showers her with love and attention. But a hep stray cat advises Coraline that she escape before she's eaten by the Other Mother, who's actually a witchy monster.

Silverman isn't a flashy director, but generally she's clear and uncluttered; here she's downright reserved. She dispatches Gaiman's most ominous visual -- denizens of the mirror world have buttons rather than eyes -- with a dull gesture instead of a flourish. As the Other Mother, Greenspan's unconventional presence is also muffled, despite the diabolical treat of a role. His adaptation is also bland (a word I never thought I'd apply to Greenspan) but at least it defers to Merritt's work.

Because Coraline may be dull to watch but it's worth listening to. The performances have more substance aurally than physically. Merritt, fashioning a modern style on grand, toy, & prepared pianos, provides a sonic canvas that's far richer than the show's visual one. His work, played superbly by Phyllis Chen, is probably enough of a draw; the virtue of lackluster staging is that it's unobtrusive.

Recently I've been listening to a pair of narrative rock albums: the Thermals' The Body, The Blood, The Machine & the Decemberists' Hazards of Love. Merritt's work on Coraline is just as musically strong as these, but it's ahead of them story-wise due to Gaiman's craftsmanship. I'd suggest Merritt & the cast book time at Electric Ladyland Studios a few blocks away & record the show. Coraline is a much stronger concept album than it is a work of theater.

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