Sunday, November 21, 2010

SF Playhouse Presents West Coast Premiere of Coraline

Brian Degan Scott as Other Bobo and Maya Donato as Coraline
Photo by SF Playhouse

SF Playhouse
Artistic Director Bill English has always been fascinated by rite of passage stories so it’s no coincidence that Coraline, which opened over the weekend up in the Bay area, was a tale he was eager to direct.

“Every culture from ancient times has its own stories about the journey from childhood to adulthood,” English says, “It’s very much a hero’s journey, in the Joseph Campbell mythology sense, and it requires courage. I call this the story of a ‘tweenie’. Coraline is a pre-pubescent girl for whom everything changes, just like things change for all of us, when we have a perception flip.

The idea of a young person creating their identity when they first realize that they have to, and the terror that comes with that, is what was appealing to me about Coraline. The story manages to personify that terror in terms of the door that leads to an alternate universe where everything is the same yet somehow different because it’s the Other World.”

The musical is adapted from Neil Gaiman’s popular children’s book and contains music & lyrics by Stephin Merritt (of the band The Magnetic Fields) and book by David Greenspan. It’s the story of a young girl who wishes she could trade her distracted, workaholic parents and boring life for a more idyllic existence.

Late one night she opens a large wooden door at the far end of the drawing room of their new home and passes into a perfect replica of her own world. There she finds a generous, loving Other Mother and kindly Other Father who entice her to stay. Unfortunately, all is not what it appears to be, and as the picture perfect vision starts to reveal the truth, Coraline must find a way to face her fears, save her parents and return to the real world.

According to English, “This is not a musical that’s like any other musical. It’s not like a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical or a Sondheim musical or a Kander & Ebb musical because the composer is very subversive to typical musical forms. He likes to work against the meter and against the phrase so that he’s shaking up and subverting the form of songwriting. It kind of throws you off balance and I think that’s really neat.

It’s also neat to see a new voice in the theatre because Merritt is not really a musical theatre writer, and it’s exciting to see a playwright like David Greenspan, who is more of a performance artist who writes for himself, and in fact, played Other Mother in the New York production, tackle a children’s story. He’s very much a counter culture performer who often crosses gender boundaries with characters that he plays and characters that he writes. To have a writer that is that unique and that idiosyncratic tackle a best-loved children’s tale means you’re going to get a really, really interesting perspective, especially when combined with Stephin Merritt’s unique musical vision."

English describes the score as “designed for three keyboards and played by a single individual…a regular piano, a toy piano (but a very good one), and then what’s called a prepared piano, which means they take things and stick them in between the strings…like playing cards, nuts and bolts, paper clips, ear plugs, insulation, washers, and all sorts of other bizarre objects, that dampen the strings and make the piano sound really weird. Whenever the action moves into the Other World you hear the prepared piano, not the regular piano."

In rehearsals he also discovered there was a lot more in the songs and text than he originally thought. “When I first started I figured, well, this is the story and then there’s a song, then there’s some more story and then there’s another song. What I realized, to my great relief, was that there was a lot of storytelling that went on during the songs and that I was able to move the story forward with them as well.”

The SF Playhouse is a theatre known for its world premieres and west coast premieres of new plays and musicals, and audiences will be seeing only the second production of Coraline. The first was staged Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York where English originally saw the show and fell in love with it. He wanted to introduce the unusual musical to Bay area theatergoers who come to the Playhouse for adventure and a first chance to see playwrights' work they haven’t seen before.

Many of the cast members have appeared in shows at the Playhouse previously. Coraline features Maya Donato and Julia Belanoff alternating in the title role, along with Susi Damilano (Miss Forcible), Jackson Davis (Father, Other Father), Maureen McVerry (Miss Spink), Stacy Ross (Mother, Other Mother), Brian Degan Scott (Mr. Bobo), and Brian Yates Sharber (Cat).

Choreography is by Erika Chong Shuch and musical direction is by Robert Moreno. The show also includes puppets created by Christopher W. White, costumes by Valera Coble, and lighting design by Michael Oesch.

Coraline will continue to run through January 15, 2011. The SF Playhouse is located at 533 Sutter Street, #318, San Francisco, CA 94102. Tickets are available at

If you’d like to hear more about the making of the new musical you can join Bill English and special guests on Sunday November 28th in the Koret Auditorium of the San Francisco Public Library for a behind-the-scenes look. For more information please call Gretchen Good at 415-557-4521.

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