Musical 'Coraline' produced at Phoenix High School

PHOENIX — Phoenix High School is bringing a popular children's story and recent stop-motion hit to the stage.

"Coraline," based on the fantasy-horror novel by Neil Gaiman that was adapted for the silver screen in 2009, opens this Friday at the high school. Phoenix theater teacher and production director Sonja Brown said the story is a parable of sorts, one that touches on the importance of family and the virtue of courage in the face of frightening circumstances.

"It's the 'Alice in Wonderland' for the 21st century," Brown says.

The play tells the story of Coraline Jones, a young girl who moves to a new home with her parents, only to find another world exists through a secret door in the structure. On the surface, that world appears much-improved from her own. On her first visit, she's treated like a queen by a mimic family, entertaining neighbors and magic toys. But dark truths about the world and its creator soon begin to emerge.

The film's ties to the Rogue Valley will continue with the production, as the look for the film's town setting was based off Ashland.

Brown first saw the musical production in New York City off Broadway in Greenwich Village in 2009, the same year the Claymation film was released.

"I just fell in love with it," Brown says.

Four years later, she's getting her chance to make the show her own. A few days from opening, students said everything is coming together.

"We have a lot of very dedicated people in our cast," says 16-year-old Holly Ragsdale, who plays Coraline.

Still, adapting a story that lends itself to rich visuals was a challenge.

"I just did not realize getting into it what a prop-heavy show it was," Brown says.

Some of the props included custom snow globes, handmade costumes, and a custom toy chest students built. They also had to make a "prepared piano," or a piano with different objects attached to certain keys with the intention of altering the sound.

Students oversaw all dance choreography and music. Jacob Caster, 16, is the show's orchestra. Whether he's switching among four pianos to offer up different musical feels for certain scenes or going through a catalogue of sound effects — drum rolls, walking, the ding of a lightbulb appearing over a character's head — he's a literal one-man band.

"At first it's really, really overwhelming," Caster says of the learning curve. "It took me quite some time. I do all kinds of stuff."

And unlike Laika, the studio that made the "Coraline" movie, these students aren't afforded the luxury of yelling "Cut!" or editing everything they've shot together at the end. Moving from one fantastical scene to the next required a bit more innovation.

"It's a lot different," says stage manager Maddie Mathewson, 15. "You can't go from one place to another on stage."

Brown says they achieve scene changes through varied lighting.

"We're keeping it very simple," she says.

Many actors play multiple roles, sometimes changing mid-scene. Finally there's the obvious challenge of putting your own mark on a story so many know from the film.

"It's difficult. You don't want to mimic a character," Ragsdale says.

The ultimate hope with the show is to make it a finalist in the Oregon Thespians state drama conference. Each year, three plays are selected, chosen by judges who watch the shows. Brown says they will find out whether they have made it by February.

"They'll give us extensive review and feedback," she says.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at

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