Thursday, May 14, 2009

Be Fresh. Be Creative. Be Good.

“Nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.”
— Officer Lockstock, Urinetown

Too much exposition wasn’t the only nail in the coffin of Coraline: The Musical, but it was certainly one of the big ones. Neil Gaiman’s novella was adapted for this Off-Broadway production by Stephin Merrit of The Magnet Fields fame and David Greenspan. I wish I could compliment them on a job well done, but I may have never seen so many missed opportunities in a single show.

The show is very Hey! Hey! Look at what we’re doing! all the way through, starting with the casting. Coraline was played by Jayne Houdyshell, a gray-haired, middle-aged, zaftig woman. In a better show, with an amazing performance, the audience may be able to suspend their disbelief better, but I never, for one moment, forgot that I was watching an actress play the part. Houdyshell really won me over in some scenes, especially when Coraline was bored. But as soon as I started to think that things might gel, Houdyshell would start mimicking childlike behavior rather than actually acting like a child.

The director was at least partly responsible for my problems with the Houdyshell. Both her performance and the show as a whole suffered from some serious schizophrenia. Is Coraline winsome? Plucky? Introverted? Mature? Brave? Foolhardy? You’d never know from this show. And is Coraline: The Musical meant to be a bit scary? Or is it funny? Again, it’s anybody’s guess. Rather than building suspense, Coraline seems to go task to task in a tedious this happened, and then that happened manner. And in the climax when she tricks Other Mother’s hand, we’re treated to a long, drawn out, and so over-the-top as to be funny song from Other Mother about how long it takes to fall to the bottom of the well. Seriously, one of the lines in this song was something like, “when a second feels like it lasts for a thousand years.” I knew the feeling very well by that point in the show. It didn’t help that most of Merrit’s songs had the same forgettable sound, either. I couldn’t have hummed a snippet of a single song on the way out of the theater.

And back to all that exposition: the audience was trusted to interpret almost nothing on their own. At the part where Coraline threw the cat at Other Mother, for instance, Other Mother faced the audience, face in hands, and said something akin to “The cat clawed at my face! I’m bleeding black tar!” The creative forces either didn’t trust their material or their audience enough to figure things out without stating everything outright. They seemed to suffer from a serious dearth of creativity in terms of how any action was staged, choosing every time to just tell us what happened. Lame.

I try to find something good in any show, and there were definitely a few highlights here. Francis Jue was particularly excellent as Father and Miss Forcible, and the stage design was effective. I wish I could say the same for the lighting, the music, the casting, the book, etc.


ellebee said...

It's too bad this show didn't work for you. I love Stephen Merrit and I would have imagined that his involvement in a musical would have made it a hit. :(

Jen said...

Okay, so this one is off our list of things to see when I'm in town. :o)