In 1990, the screenplay of “Ghost” earned an Oscar for its author, Bruce Joel Rubin. The film was a crowd pleaser, and that made it instantly eligible for the “let’s make a musical of it” crowd. So Mr. Rubin joined up with Dave Stewart, a British musician, producer, author and entrepreneur, and together they’ve come up with a product called Ghost The Musical.
It joins a long list of other musicals based on much loved or in some cases even totally forgotten films of the past. The reasoning I assume is that there will be a vast audience eager to resume its relationship with the characters that inhabited the film. Sometimes it works — Applause had considerable success as a musical even though it was based on the brilliant film “All About Eve”. A Catered Affair the musical was a bad idea and it flopped, even though it began life as a fine teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky in 1955 and a decent screenplay by Gore Vidal the following year.
Ghost the Musical falls somewhere between the two. Conceived as a spectacular mixed media musical with a cast of dozens, the small story within the large production is changed, not to its advantage. It is the tale of a boy and girl, (Sam and Molly) ardently in love during the first blissful months of their relationship, destroyed by the sudden murder of Sam by a thug who was supposed only to take from him a wallet containing the code of bank accounts which Sam, as an employee of the bank, had been investigating because there is an imbalance in the records. The code however is not in the wallet, but in a little notebook, which eventually winds up in Molly’s possession.
Only two other characters populate the basic tale, with one more on its periphery. Sam’s friend and co-worker at the bank (Carl) has been laundering drug money through the bank, and it was he who hired the thug to steal it from Sam, but the shakedown went wrong and Sam is fatally shot. Now Carl must get the code from Molly. Sam is unable to protect her because she cannot hear his voice, nor can she see him. But a fake palm reader (Oda Mae Brown), with her psychic powers (limited, but why ask?) does hear Sam, and he convinces her to join him in protecting Molly.
The authors and director Matthew Warchus, whose impressive list of credits makes us wonder what attracted him to this project, have opted to blow up this film/noir romantic comedy into something resembling a theme park spectacular complete with loudly singing and hyperactive dancing by a large ensemble, made even larger by the use of film images of men, women and even buildings flying by.
The special effects are special indeed, and they are fun. To watch men rise without benefit of harness attached, to see Sam pass through a closed door as all good ghosts should be able to do, to watch a gun kill a man, only to see him rise from the floor leaving his body and observe his own corpse, to see books fly unaided from a bookcase, to watch newspapers float through the night air, all wonderful and I’d pay a penny to learn how all that’s done. Alas, it all so overwhelms the sweet little story that is happening in front of it that by the end of the first act, I did not have much interest in returning for the wrapup. But of course we are discussing an entire piece here, so of course I returned.
And in the second act, when Oda Mae is allowed to sing the one interesting melody and the one original lyric in a piece called “I’m Outta Here”, Ghost reminds us what a musical comedy should be. Da’Vine Joy Randolph (aptly named, no?) plays this big Mama and she knows how to dig into show stopping material and deliver.
When here and there a scene between two people is played realistically we are suddenly allowed to feel something for these poor benighted souls. The leading man, Richard Fleeshman (who played Sam in London last season) is attractive, sings well, but is forced throughout the first act, once he’s dead, to keep running after his lady love shouting “Molly, can’t you hear me?! Get out, Molly! Molly, they’re going to kill you!”) and when he’s not shouting, he’s sitting in a corner somewhere listening to what’s going on so he can warn her some more.
The leading lady, Cassie Levy (also from the London production), is forced to sing what seemed like eight ballads; happy ones like “Here Right Now” and “More” and sad ones that keep saying the same thing, with titles and lyrics to match like “You Gotta Let Go”, “Three Little Words”, (in which she insists Sam say “I love you” even though she knows he does), “With You”, “Suspend My Disbelief” and “Rain”.
There ought to be a union rule protecting leading ladies from overzealous sound designers who insist on turning their very attractive voices into Valkerian shrieks, with the required final note forcing fingers of unprotected audiences into their ears. The sound design by Bobby Aitken is therefore another villain, blasting away all the time, incessantly.
The second act also delivers a moment or two of tenderness and when poor Sam finally gets to go to his reward, when Molly finally takes her own advice and lets go, when Carl is grotesquely dispatched to the wild blue yonder, when Oda Mae is allowed to stop bellowing (though Ms. Randolph gets a lot of mileage out of her particular brand of bellowing), one can see through all the scenic effects and sound distortion the skeleton of what could have been a sweet romantic musical, one that would have served its source movie well.
It would appear the creators of the musical didn’t trust the material so they imposed upon it all the trappings of a Ziegfeld Follies combined with the Ring Cycle of Wagner, and what’s emerged is a big blimp of a show. The “Unchained Melody” is retained from the movie, and that, combined with the popular title, may lead a number of people to the box office. It certainly did so in London. My only advice to them would be: “Bring earplugs, and leave romantic notions in the cloak room as you enter.”
Ghost The Musical is onstage at The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who numbers among his many accomplishments, careers as Broadway performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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