When I walked into the Lucille Lortel Theatre last week to see the Coraline musical, my first thought was, “That’s not an apartment!” It wasn’t even a flat. It was a stage covered in pianos of every shape and size: piles of toy pianos, stacks of uprights, and this outlandish thing that I thought was Frankensteined, but turns out to be something called a giraffe piano. Who knew?
My friend Rob has said that he defines science fiction and fantasy in one swoop: anything where the setting is so critical to the plot that it becomes a character in its own right. I’m paraphrasing, and I know there are loopholes that both over-include and over-exclude under that definition, but watching this show put it into practice. I loved the instrumental music, played on a variety of pianos by Phyllis Chen, who also plucked the strings or ran wires over and under them to make unearthly noises. The whole effect was busy and whimsical and menacing. That giraffe piano was the black cat’s favorite spot to lounge, but it wasn’t until halfway through the play that I noticed the little bonsai tree sitting on its summit. (You can see it in the photo.) Neon tubes, like giant piano wires, crisscrossed the stage. Miss Spink and Miss Forcible’s dogs were little moppy creatures glued to the inside of a toy piano lid, and when the lid was raised, their heads bobbed excitedly. When the Other Mother’s hand chases Coraline into her real world, it’s not a puppet or an actor, it’s just the sound of drumsticks being run over piano keys, first on the left, then the right, imaginary fingernails clacking in stereo.
I hope I haven’t ruined the magic for anyone, but part of the appeal of Coraline is that it’s so obviously an exercise in storytelling rather than a literal portrayal of events. They put the audience in a position where we are participating in the tricky, non-literal perspective that defines the world of the show. Even if you know that the same actor is playing Father and Miss Forcible, even if you can see the drumstick on the keys and it doesn’t look anything like an apartment, it doesn’t matter, and that was the real delight of Coraline.
Coraline plays at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through July 5.
Image by Joan Marcus, from MCC Theater’s website.