Sunday, November 21, 2010

"Coraline": ☼ ☼ ☼

It's funny and it's creepy, it's exciting if a bit plodding, it's a musical with clever lyrics but almost no music, it features bravura performances and songs that are meant to make you chuckle but not touch the heart. The truest thing we can say about "Coraline," by David Greenspan and Stephin Merritt, is that it is wonderfully different and refreshing because of it. You are never bored, even when you're not sure what just happened.

Much of this is due to the remarkable performance of Maya Donato, an eleven year old who has already been acting for seven years. She is the perfect Coraline, a thoughtfully whimsical child whose boring life in a new home leads her to discover her 'other' family, with her other parents, her other fellow house dwellers, and even her other cat, who now talks.

Our regular reviewer would never stop here to mention Brian Yates Sharber's excellent performance as the cat, but our 'other' reviewer is doing so. Sharber may have typecast his way into a career of graceful animals with cool shoes who can clearly sing like a bird when requested.

Coraline's fellow dwellers in her new home include Miss Forcible and Miss Spink (Susi Damilano and Maureen McVerry), Mr. Bobo (Brian Degan Scott), and of course Coraline's mother and father (Stacy Ross and Jackson Davis). Ross, in particular, brings down the house with her final wicked witch number "Falling...Falling."

This Wizard of Oz comparison is not accidental. Dorothy and Coraline both fantasize about living in that other world just over the rainbow, or in this case, through the locked door. And both are so happy to come home to Kansas.

You're going to enjoy Stephin Merrit's music, but the songs are barely songs. Short, sweet or wry, always clever but never emotional, the turns of lyric phrases and off-center rhymes will make you smile. But you'll find it hard to believe you just heard twenty five songs (some reprises). There's the one about the toys, and the rats, and the two old actresses' song, and "Falling." And there's one at the end that the whole cast sings.

You may or may not enjoy the fact that all the music comes from plunkings on toy or composed pianos. You won't get to clap much -- because the music feels like an afterthought, like an optional side dish where the main course is clever lyrics, and they clear 'em away in a hurry.

But this is not your mama's musical, though the story recalls many older fairy tales. Neil Gaiman's novella is well known and has already been made into an animated film, so you may be familiar with it already. We liked it. Our 'other' reviewer likes music in musicals so he is not so sure -- but we both think you should go see "Coraline."

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Coraline" Three Stars. Maya Donato, Stacy Ross and Brian Yates Sharber earn a star apiece, with special mention for Bill English and Matt Vuolo's stage design team whose clever set made a lot of action possible within a small space.

San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through Jan. 15