‘Coraline’ is a pleasant but not magical diversion

The talent is top-notch in SF Playhouse’s West Coast premiere of the new, family-friendly minimusical “Coraline.”

For starters, there is Neil Gaiman’s dark, “Alice in Wonderland”-ish children’s book upon which the show is based. In it, an adventurous English schoolgirl — with distracted, workaholic parents — wanders through a mysterious door in her house to find herself in a parallel universe.

There, she encounters a devoted (or so it seems at first) Other Mother, an eager Other Father and slightly off-kilter incarnations of the neighbors (and animals and things) in her life, such as the dotty, elderly sisters who are retired actresses, the crazy old man upstairs who claims to train mice to do tricks, a black cat, animated toys and so on.

Danger, of course, lurks. Coraline must eventually embark upon a hero’s journey to destroy evil and save the innocent.

Then, there is comedic playwright David Greenspan’s adaptation, which hews close to Gaiman’s clever and spooky book, and the lilting score of composer/lyricist Stephin Merritt (of The Magnetic Fields) — about two dozen little ditties, including the creepy, the comically wistful, the cheerily philosophical, the satirical, the poignant and so on.

Most are accompanied by a backstage “prepared” piano — objects inserted between the strings to produce an eerie sound. Music direction is by Robert Moreno. Puppets (by Christopher W. Wright), toy pianos and other toy instruments are involved as well.

And the cast features some of the Bay Area’s best talents, most in multiple roles — Susi Damilano and Maureen McVerry as the sisters, Jackson Davis as the Scottish-accented Other Father, Brian Degan Scott as the nutty Mr. Bobo, Brian Yates Sharber as the slinky-talking cat (Erika Chong Shuch choreographed the production) and the marvelous Stacy Ross, increasingly unhinged as the demented Other Mother with her slow-growing red Fu Manchu fingernails (playfully colorful costumes by Valera Coble).

The role of Coraline alternates at different performances; I saw Maya Donato, who charmed with her sweet voice and natural quality.

Still, under Bill English’s usual carefully calibrated direction, the show does not cast the magical spell it is meant to.

The pacing lags in spots — the low-tech, small-stage production attempts to do too much with too little, resulting in an awkwardly cluttered set (despite some imaginative efforts by set designers English and Matt Vuolo). And the promising young Donato, while endearingly unflappable, does not have the palette of emotional colors to make her girlish adventure palpable.

THEATER REVIEW
Coraline

Where: SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes Jan. 15
Tickets: $30 to $50
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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