Neil Gaiman's 2002 fantasy novel about a precocious 12-year-old girl, Coraline Jones, who finds a parallel and increasingly scary world on the other side of a brick wall in her home, got two adaptations in 2009 — Henry Selick's stop-motion animated film, and a cerebral and cunning musical version crafted by composer/lyricist Stephin Merritt and book writer David Greenspan.
The musical "Coraline" is now in its local premiere with Black Button Eyes Productions — the company's name is a hat tip to one of the recurring threats to the title character. Bored and restless while her distracted work-from-home parents click and clatter away at their laptops, Coraline is initially drawn to "the Other Mother," whose eyes are indeed black buttons, and who at first offers Coraline the pampering she craves, from delicious roast chicken to magical living toys. Even the Other World version of her neighbors are more interesting — Miss Forcible and Miss Spink, the dotty retired thespians who, in the real world, offer musty reminiscences and inedible fruitcake, provide a never-ending cabaret-with-dogs in their Other World flat. Other Mother wants Coraline to stay in this seemingly perfect world. Forever.
But of course, in order to believe in perfection, one has to lose the ability to see clearly — and hence Other Mother's threats to replace Coraline's eyes with those ominous black buttons.
It's a wonderfully creepy tale, and Merritt, the world-weary polymath behind The Magnetic Fields and many other brainy pop projects, is the man for the job. Even famously gloomy rocker Bob Mould of Husker Du fame, when told that a critic had called Mould "the most depressed man in rock," responded with "He's never met Stephin Merritt, obviously." The increasingly dark tale contrasts with the whimsical instrumentation, which includes three pianos played by musical director Nick Sula — an upright, a "prepared" piano with objects stuck in the strings, and a toy piano — as well as other toy instruments played by the cast. Though I'd argue it's more a play with music than a musical, the songs serve the mood well by offering slightly acidic, but often beguiling, twists on styles ranging from music-hall numbers to lullabies.
Yet director Ed Rutherford's production here feels a little too cautious for its own good, despite some engaging performances. Obviously the small-theater aesthetic can't allow for the kinds of funhouse effects Selick achieved in his film, but there needs to be a greater sense of clammy danger for Sheridan Singleton's spunky heroine as the shadows fall over the world controlled by Other Mother (Ryan Lanning). Without it, we never quite identify with Coraline's growing maturity as she learns the classic lessons all children in dark tales seem to acquire — be careful what you wish for (or, as Coraline puts it, "I don't want whatever I want"), being brave isn't the same as not being afraid, etc.
But there are several well-crafted performances here, including Lanning's seductively vampiric Other Mother, Kevin Webb as the black cat who serves as Coraline's faithful but faintly contemptuous black-cat spirit guide, and Caitlin Jackson and Kevin Bishop as the warmhearted fading theatrical divas.
Through Sept. 6, City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave; $25 at coralinechicago.com