In Neil Gaiman’s delightfully sinister little novella Coraline, a young girl discovers a secret passageway in her house. The portal leads to another world, inhabited by seemingly perfect versions of her own harried, distracted parents—except they have buttons for eyes. It can’t have been easy to turn this material, which features tunnels into oblivion and all manner of talking animals, into a musical, particularly in light of Henry Selick’s recent (and marvelous) animated movie version. But David Greenspan and Stephin Merritt (of the Magnetic Fields) have met the challenge gamely, and this show, directed by Leigh Silverman, features plenty of imaginative, low-key touches: To suggest Coraline’s portal to that secret world, one character simply holds up a tiny door, which opens to reveal either a bricked-up wall or, more unnervingly, nothing. The set, by Christine Jones, is a pleasing jumble of steampunky Victoriana, stocked with a selection of tired old pianos of all sizes and colors, which make a smart visual counterpart to Merritt’s eerie, plinky prepared-piano melodies. (A song half-whispered, half-sung by a devious troupe of performing mice is particularly effective; they sound like a chorus of tiny Peter Lorres.)
But the show’s modest, clever touches work only part of the time. Elsewhere, they have the DIY quality of a crude Christmas pantomime, winsome only to a point. As Coraline, Jayne Houdyshell (a 2006 Tony Award nominee for her role in Well) relies too much on that shoulder-shrugging, toe-stubbing “I don’t wanna grow up” affectation adopted by adults when they’re trying to act like little kids. Greenspan himself appears as Coraline’s “other” mother, flouncing about like a nightmare June Cleaver whose hair is inexplicbly done up in dreadlocks bedecked with tinsel. Campy touches like that only dilute the material’s delectably creepy undertones, an instance of fanciful vision giving way to button-eyed shortsightedness.
MCC Theater; at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through July 5