By Stephin Merritt and David Greenspan, based on the book by Neil Gaiman. At: Black Button Eyes Productions at City Lit Theater,1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: coralinechicago.brownpapertickets.com; $25. Runs through: Sept. 6
Neil Gaiman's work is as beloved as any writer's, and a theatrical setting makes a great deal of sense for Coraline, the abstract, twisted kid-tale-for-grown-ups. And a musical? You have my attention.
Director Ed Rutherford and Black Button Eyes Productions' take on this story is every bit as bizarre and creative as you'd hopeand more gender-bending than you might have guessedfor a Coraline musical. There's an array of unusual and intriguing sights and sounds that give Coraline a distinct tone, something along the lines of a Rocky Horror children's show.
But this production amounts to the sum of its creative choices and production quality, rather than the sharpness of its storytelling. With attention-grabbing moments speckled throughout, Coraline drifts in and out of artistic genius and sheer boredom.
The story follows young Coraline Jones, who just moved into a new house with her inattentive parents and strange neighbors. Longing for adventure, she discovers a doorway in her new house that leads to a bizzaro-world version of her real life only everyone has black button eyes and is way more fun and interesting.
Although the plot is technically basic and the staging perpetually moves and changes throughout the 90-minute runtime ( with no intermission ), Coraline still manages to be tedious and even difficult to comprehend, especially lyrically. The purpose of songs revealing deeper layers of a character gets entirely lost in these brief and flitting "musical numbers" between the abstract lyrics and music that delights in atonalities.
This music intentionally ignores any and all Broadway conventions. Songs are short and rarely follow traditional verse-chorus patterns, and there isn't one memorable lyric in the entire show. Given the source material, this makes perfect sense. Coraline doesn't need show-stoppers. But the line between ingenuity and distraction gets blurred more often than not in this production.
All of Coraline's ( Sheridan Singleton ) solos, for example, are accompanied by an out-of-tune bell piano, which when combined with her intentionally off-key child's voice, borders on intolerable. The songs that do hold attention, however, don't last long enough or add enough to the story to have an impact. The show can be properly summarized by a song featuring the cat ( Kevin Webb ), who provides most of the show's comedy. He sings on the piano and interacts with the on-stage accompanist, and his song has a number of random keyboard slaps written in, but before long, a number that starts out fun and promising becomes distracting with perpetual key-slamming that covers up the lyrics entirely, and the Avant-garde spectacle of it never gives way to the story.
Otherwise, Coraline brims with creativity from costumes and props to sound effects and choreography, and the cast is about as humble and "blue-collar" as they come. So much energy has gone into the details to provide a one-of-a-kind scaled-down musical experience and a true feast for the senses, even if the intellect is left to sit alone at the kids' table.