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Review - Coraline: The Threepenny Children's Musical?

I suppose if Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill ever took a crack at writing theatre for young Weimar audiences, their effort might have had a strong likeness to Stephin Merritt and David Greenspan's creepily enchanting fantasy, Coraline, receiving a production from MCC that's far too interesting for viewers to be overly concerned with the occasional bumps.

If you're wondering how the new musical compares with Neil Gaiman's source novel or the recent feature film, please wonder elsewhere, as this was my first exposure the video game inspiration. (At first I thought I was off to see a revival and was wondering why they removed the words "or Change" from the title.)

The always engaging mid-50s character actress Jane Houdyshell plays the central role of Coraline, a precocious 9-year-old tyke with a proper Brit accent. This brilliant casting move spares us from the annoyance of having to endure 90 minutes of watching an actual precocious 9-year-old tyke with a proper Brit accent. (address your hate mail to Suspend your disbelief and she's quite convincing as the wise, brave and tricky lass who, tired of being ignored by her workaholic parents, finds passage through a secret door in their new home which leads to an alternate world where she's greeted by the loving and attentive Other Mother and Other Father. In this new world, variations of the people she knows in real life have eyes that are actually buttons sewn onto their faces and Other Mother (Greenspan reserves this juicy role - with a grandly overdone exit song - for himself) plans to have her pupiled guest undergo the same treatment.

Director Leigh Silverman is especially good with this kind of slightly off-kilter theatrics and the production has that impish little theatre feel. Christine Jones' set is a clutter of doors and nearly three dozen pianos (toy, grand, spinet and prepared) many of which are played by Phyllis Chen for both musical accompaniment and sound effects. Merritt's short, character-driven songs - ending without applause buttons - appropriately sound like dry, unsentimental nursery rhymes with their uncomplicated melodies and simple poetry.

The ensemble of actors play multiple roles as various rodents, ghosts and people, with fine turns by January LaVoy and Francis Jue as a pair of aged actresses living in the imagined glories of their past and Julian Fleisher as a snidely grinning cat.

But while Coraline almost always claims your attention, the material lacks the perpetual forward motion that musical theatre demands in order to inspire emotional involvement. The score has its charming tunes and pleasing wordplay, but the songs tend to linger on moments instead of taking the story anywhere. And while the theatricality of the production entertains, it sometimes comes at the expense of adding real urgency to the title character's predicament, particularly when Other Mother leans to the campier side.

But Coraline is one of those cases where the flaws are just a matter of the musical not quite being up to the high ambitions of the creators. If the text as a whole can use a bit of dramaturgy, there are enough individual pieces here to admire and enjoy.

Photo by Joan Marcus: Francis Jue, Jayne Houdyshell, Elliot Villar and William Youmans

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From This Author Kristin Salaky