Chicago Theatre Review
Through a Glass Darkly
Coraline – Black Button Eyes Production
Unlocking a secret door in her apartment that dead ends into a brick wall, seemingly going nowhere, a little girl discovers a portal into another dimension. Accompanied only by a surly black cat, Coraline (NOT “Caroline,” as she continually admonishes her new friends) boldly enters into the Other World. There she discovers mirror image rooms of the boarding house she just left, peopled by residents who look surprisingly like her parents and neighbors. The main difference, besides their eerie appearances and over-the-top personalities, is they all have shiny black buttons sewn onto their faces where there should be eyes.
Neil Gaiman’s multi award-winning horror/fantasy novel for young readers was published in 2002 and is often compared to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass. As in Carroll’s fantasy, a young girl uses a key to unlock a mysterious door and finds herself in a strange world inhabited by frightening characters. A mirror plays an important role in both stories and the young girl, with the help of a talking cat, must defeat evil.
In 2009 both a stop-action animated film and this 90-minute musical version of “Coraline” debuted. Black Button Eyes new production, nicely directed by Ed Rutherford, with musical direction by Nick Sula and movement provided by Derek Van Barham, offers a very creative interpretation of Gaiman’s story. Mr. Sula’s accompaniment on upright, baby grand and a variety of toy pianos is both clever and ghostly. Besides several impressive performances, much of this production’s success can be attributed to the visuals created through Beth Laske-Miller’s unique costume designs. Those creepy, ubiquitous black button eyes, that are such a memorable image in this story, appear and disappear as needed with ease, due to Ms. Miller’s ingenuity. The Other Mother’s frightening visage, with her long black hair, paper white skin, long twitchy fingers and venomous red nails, are all products of Ms. Miller’s fertile imagination.
Sheridan Singleton supplies the energy behind this show as Coraline, the bored little girl whose parents seems too busy to spend any quality time with her. Her family’s recent relocation to this Victorian house that’s been divided up into apartments inspires Coraline to spend her summer exploring and meeting the other tenants. They include two retired actresses, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, played with hammy Thespian lunacy by Caitlin Jackson and an especially hilarious Kevin Bishop. Coraline’s neighbor, Mr. Bobo, referred to as “the crazy old man upstairs,” is portrayed with Eastern European gusto by Jeff Bouthiette. A retired circus performer, who spends his days training mice to perform tricks, Bouthiette, along with Bishop and Jackson also demonstrate their versatility by playing a variety of creatures in the Other World.
Coraline’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, are played by the superb Jennifer Grubb (so spectacular as Aurora in Boho’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) and promising, talented Chicago newcomer Justin Kimrey. Both actors also portray other characters, including Kimrey’s ghostly portrayal of the Other Father.
However, there are two stars who own this production. Kevin Webb, who has to turn around three times to make a shadow, is hilarious and agile as a ballet dancer as the sarcastic Black Cat. Never has “Me-ow” been uttered with such disdain and droll humor. The multi-talented Jeff Award-winning Ryan Lanning, such a standout in area productions of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Jerry Springer, the Opera,” plays the drag role of the Other Mother. At first statuesque and frighteningly sweet, Lanning seamlessly evolves into the kind of threatening and horrifying monster who frequently haunts children’s nightmares. In his capable, spidery-fingered hands Lanning steals the show.
While David Greenspan’s adaptation is faithful to Neil Gaiman’s book, it’s Stephin Merritt’s score, musically directed and played by the talented Nick Sula, that provides much of the play’s ghostly atmosphere. The songs aren’t necessarily memorable but they do their job, conveying the devilish fright and fun of Gaiman’s story. And while this musical story may be a draw for younger audiences and their families, the production may prove a bit too frightening for younger children. However, for Gaiman’s adult fans and older kids this will be a treat that’ll provide some delightful chills on a hot summer day.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 8-September 6 by Black Button Eyes Productions at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at www.brownpapertickets.com.
Additional information about this other productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.