As Coraline, the little girl at the center of this musical adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s macabre children’s story, fifty-ish Jayne Houdyshell gets straight to the essence of clever, finicky, restless youth. She declares, “I’m an adventurer!” with just the right amount of triumph and self-consciousness; when confronted by strange or menacing adults, her expressive face takes on a look of cloudy-eyed impatience. Houdyshell gives us the most persnickety version of this look when David Greenspan, who plays Coraline’s sinister Other Mother, shoos her away so that he can tear into his eleven o’clock number, where he yodels and trills the words, “I’m falling,” many times before letting loose with a show-stopping Margaret Hamilton shriek (a girl next to me said, “That was amazing!” to her companion, and I couldn’t agree with her more). Greenspan, who was so endlessly inventive and funny a few months ago in Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor for Theatre Askew, doesn’t have just one freak flag to fly; when he’s at his best, as he is in this climactic number, he’s a whole United Nation of freaks, an uncanny stage presence that puts me in mind of serpents and queens, Clifton Webb and Maria Montez.
Like the material itself, this production of Coraline, spearheaded by Houdyshell and Greenspan (who also wrote the book for this musical), mixes gender and age, fantasy and reality. The actors who play the girl’s busy parents (January LaVoy and Francis Jue) double as Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, two put-out-to-pasture thespians who frustrate the sporty Coraline by going over their Shakespearian past. Stephin Merritt’s songs have a likable diffidence that feels exactly right for this tale of a smart, often dissatisfied little girl; the songs often end unexpectedly, which keeps us as off-balance as Coraline, and the musical accompaniment effectively see-saws between the charming tinkling of toy pianos and the burping discomfort of rubbed balloons.
The narrative lays out the idea of casting off our original parents for parents who might better understand a child’s quirks and dislikes, but Houdyshell’s Coraline is never truly tempted by Greenspan’s Other Mother, who seems too creepy from the get-go to ever seduce away her soul. This Other Mother uses brute force to keep the souls of the children she captures, and Houdyshell has several moments of pure emotion where she movingly captures the girl’s sadness and fear when she sits in the dark alone, without parents or friends to help her. Her only real help is a snooty cat (Julian Fleisher), and when she sits talking to the ghosts of dead, soulless children, we can feel the punishing darkness of Gaiman’s conception, which, like the best children’s stories, brings you right to the brink of hell before giving you some kind of release. But Coraline never really seems to be in any danger here, somehow, either physically or morally, and that’s the one failing of this otherwise sensitive production, which is stuffed to the bursting point with talent in all areas.