Sometimes the price you pay for freshness is that it comes to you a little scruffy, a little rough around the edges. And if the scruffiness suggests points that could be tidied up, it also adds an extra enhancement: The imperfection is part of the charm, like a child’s stubborn cowlick or snaggle-toothed smile. Which explains, in part, why the big, glossy, efficiently tidy musicals often seen uptown, with nary a hair out of place, aren’t an eighth as fresh or as much fun as Coraline, the musical version of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel, by David Greenspan and Stephin Merritt, being presented at the Lortel by Manhattan Class Company.
An obstinate, adorable, wayward brat of a musical, Coraline is scruffiness personified. And it’s the quintessence of fresh—a musical with a score, by a noted rock musician, that’s squarely in the musical-theater tradition and manages to pull off the magical double feat of never sounding either like just another piece of musical theater or like another recycled rock album trying to find its place on the stage. Coraline, gratifyingly, never sounds like anything but itself, from the ear-tickling overture, plinked at you by a phalanx of toy pianos as they creep out of the shadows, to the goofball finale, its moral warbled and tootled by the cast as they impersonate a marching band of trained circus mice. Scruffy never had it so good.
Not having read Gaiman’s novel, or seen the animated film based on it, I can’t say how much of the show’s quality derives from its source and how much from Greenspan and Merritt’s freewheeling transformation of it. What’s obvious is that Gaiman, like J.K. Rowling, has the dual quality a successful fantasist requires: an awareness of retracing classic ground while imagining everything freshly for oneself. Other than interplanetary voyaging, Coraline‘s story touches all the familiar bases of nonrealist fiction, from whimsy through fairy tale to horror, from myth and moral fable to short story, novel, and film. The door in the wall, the children trapped in the mirror, the alt-universe where mothers seem to do what kids want and a formerly silent cat can suddenly speak—it’s like running into old friends suddenly togged out in bright new clothes. You’re almost tempted to wave hello to the rats in Lovecraft’s walls, or to Robert Florey’s five-fingered beast, as they scuttle past.
But Gaiman’s allusiveness is less to the point than the way he makes the old tropes new. He follows the traditional pattern: A child (a little girl in this version) learns bravery and self-reliance while rescuing herself and the world, including her oblivious parents, from nameless otherworldy horrors. But in Gaiman’s update, the Le Fanu–style old dark house has been subdivided into suburban flats—a perfect excuse for bricked-up doorways that stir fantasies of what might lurk on the other side. And little Coraline’s oblivious parents—no thick-skulled Muggles—are smart, lovingly p.c. workaholics, too deeply buried in their computer life between boring, eco-friendly meals, to notice oddities like the tiny sinister rat voices that disturb their daughter’s sleep.
Naturally, Coraline is enchanted to discover, on the other side of the bricked-up doorway, a same-only-different parallel world featuring an extravagantly affectionate Other Mother who loves to play games, serves up all of Coraline’s favorite forbidden foods, and fills her bedroom with noisy, bright-colored toys. She soon finds, of course, that this deal has its dark side: Its relentless pleasantness and self-indulgence brook no contradiction, turning nastily dangerous when Coraline tries to return to reality. It takes all her childish cunning, plus good advice from some other trapped souls and a bit of unexpected help from the seemingly noncommittal cat, to get her back to her own world.
In a way, the story’s a parable for artists, and those who delight in art, as well as for children. Fantasy is fine; indulging in it to the point where you lose all sense of the real world is what brings on destruction. Letting your imagination work also means not blinding it to the constant surprises that everyday life can provide; honoring reality also means not blinding yourself to the great unknowables that surround it. The ironies cut both ways: It’s Coraline’s real mother who carelessly opens the door to the other world (in order to show Coraline there’s nothing there); Other Mother’s ultimate destruction comes from her not realizing how things work in reality.
Viewed from that angle, the scruffiness of Leigh Silverman’s production not only enhances the work but fulfills it thematically. Even under the teasingly shadowy glimmer of Ben Stanton’s lights, the setting Christine Jones has designed is chiefly just a demarcation of areas on a demonstrably real stage—though when you look back, you wonder how she and Silverman managed to supply it with such a variety of tones and textures, abetted by Anita Yavich’s piquant and funny costumes.
Nor could anyone pretend that Silverman’s six-person cast represents Gaiman’s ornate panoply of characters, as compressed by Greenspan, in any literal way that would let fantasy engulf reality. Coraline is played by Jayne Houdyshell, who has not been a little girl for some time now. No matter: Houdyshell’s sweet forthrightness as an actress makes a perfect aesthetic equivalent for childhood; the slightly cartoony edge her physical presence supplies (I never realized before how much she resembles a Roz Chast character) serves to license the fantasy events. January LaVoy and Francis Jue play, with precision and panache, both Coraline’s real parents and the elderly actresses downstairs, Jue with his hairless dome unwigged. Greenspan himself makes an expectably flamboyant, incisive Other Mother, William Youmans a movingly feckless alt-father, and Julian Fleisher absolutely the best cat I have ever seen onstage. The show’s list of delights is so long I haven’t left myself sufficient space to do justice to Merritt’s jaunty, harmonically surprising score, and will have to leave you to discover its many ingenuities for yourself.