Sunday, August 10, 2014

Seeing Coraline: A Review

On Saturday August 9th, I saw the midwest premiere of Stephin Merritt and David Greenspan’s musical Coraline. Having lived with the cast recording of the show’s original off-Broadway production since its release, I am intensely familiar with the music and had desperately wanted to see a production of the show since Mr. Merritt initially started publicly talking about it as a potentiality way back in 2007 or so. So, I reckon that I am amongst the show’s spectators whose expectations were the highest by a fair amount.

That being said, HOLY SHIT. I can’t express enough that this show did not let me down one bit. I mentioned the cast recording having been a part of my life for a while, and I should emphasize that it’s amongst my favorite work by Merritt; its experimental nature combined with Merritt’s usual economy of words combine to make a product that is wholly relatable and very special to me. I wasn’t expecting it at all, but seeing Black Button Eyes’ production of the show made me love the music so much more.

The play itself is done in a very interesting way, extremely lo-fi and experimental. Yet, at no time did I feel disconnected from the reality it was presenting. The director, Ed Rutherford, has done a phenomenal job of finding the delicate balance that comes along with suspending an audience’s disbelief and utilized experimentation in a way every bit as unique and engaging as the play's famously experimental music. At no point did the play feel inaccessible or have the standard collegiate artsy “weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird” feeling, but rather it came across that Mr. Rutherford has an intense understanding of the play’s story, tone, and music and worked hard to ensure that this story was told the best possible way it could be told in this medium.

I don’t want to sound as though I’m doting (although long term readers of this blog will likely recognize this as a habit of mine), but I similarly can’t say enough good things about the cast. Sheridan Singleton does a spectacular job of bringing the title character to life, and I feel as though the spotlight usually reserved for this type of role is well-shared amongst her castmates. The play calls for a small cast, with several actors doubling as rats and dogs and ghost children and all such manner of things, which could lead to a messy production if not handled properly. But the entire cast handles this responsibility really gracefully and the transitions never come across any harsher than they need to. Of particular note is Justin Kimrey, who plays the Father, Other Father, and a slew of others. It was really fun to watch his subtle shifts in energy as he embodied each different role, the scene of the Other Father’s demise being a particular highlight that was very eerie and fun to watch.

I’d also be remiss not to mention Ryan Lanning, who plays the Other Mother. While the entire production was filling some Shaq-sized shoes in my mind, I went into the show thinking Lanning would likely have the hardest job of all. David Greenspan’s performance as the Other Mother was so chilling and singular; “Falling, Falling” is a song that I’ve always felt was brought to another level by his performance. Ryan Lanning, to be blunt, fucking nailed it. His performance is extremely unique and stoic, poised with creepiness and a general sense of dread when he’s onstage (a weird compliment if ever there was one). When Coraline recoils at the Other Mother’s touch, the audience does as well. And his performance of the aforementioned “Falling, Falling” was perhaps the highlight of the entire show for me.

Obviously, though, the part of the show I was looking forward to the most was the music. Mr. Merritt’s music is obviously an integral part of my life, strange though that may be, and it mattered very much to me how it was going to be treated in this production. As I mentioned, the original cast recording is a favorite of mine, and part of the reason for that is its unusual instrumentation. The entire score is composed on three types of pianos: a regular grand piano, a toy piano, and a prepared piano that has an abundance of bullshit wedged into its strings. Not to be overly analytical, but the metaphorical implications here are fairly overt, in that the grand piano represents the domesticity of Coraline’s regular world, the toy piano represents Coraline’s childlike sensibility, and the prepared piano represents Coraline’s descent into this strange Other World.

The show’s musical director, Nick Sula, is onstage for the entire performance and has a little pit of pianos. Watching him transition from one piano to the other was a delight every goddamn time, as it felt like he was traveling through this strange world with Coraline. I hope it’s not redundant for me to keep referencing the original cast recording, but the piano on that recording was performed by Phyllis Chen, who is arguably the world’s foremost toy pianist. And, due to the very nature of a prepared piano, the sound of the show is going to be unique to each performance. All that being said, I was really in awe when I found myself enjoying these songs even more than ever while watching the play. Sula’s role here is clearly critical, as the entire score is written for a solo musician (clearly atypical of musical theater), but the singers’ role here is, to me, as critical. I never once felt let down, and felt especially excited by Caitlin Jackson and Kevin Bishop’s (Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, elderly thespians fallen from grace), who brought a really unexpected and wonderful context to their song “When We Were Young And Trod The Boards.”

I feel an immense amount of gratitude to the show’s entire cast and crew for bringing this show to Chicago, but it’s difficult to express exactly how grateful I am that they did so in a way that was so special. I went into the show with an unfair level of expectations, and goddamn it, they exceeded all of them. My fiancĂ©, who had never heard the music before and who lacks the unbridled enthusiasm I have for Mr. Merritt's work in general, similarly said that it was the best piece of theater she’d ever seen, so I feel confident in saying that my feelings on the play are objective and without bias. I used the word special, and that’s exactly how it felt. It was a night at the theater I’ll treasure until senility, that’s for damn sure. What’s also damn sure is that I’ll be seeing the show again before its run ends on September 6th, and you should do the goddamn same. Buy your tickets here, and travel miles and miles if you have to.

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