Tuesday, April 24, 2012

REVIEW: Ghost: The Musical

Review of the Saturday, April 14th evening preview performance at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City.  Starring Caissie Levy, Richard Fleeshman, Bryce Pinkham and Da'Vine Joy Randolph.  Book by Bruce Joel Rubin, based upon his screenplay.  Music by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard.  Lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin, Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard. Illusions by Paul Kieve.  Choreography by Ashley Wallen.  Direction by Matthew Warchus.  2 hours, 40 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: B+

How many times have I written on this very blog that musicals based on films are only truly successful when they utilize the film version's strengths while celebrating those things that can only be done live on stage?  Too many to count.  Broadway is littered with oh so many attempts at bringing the big screen to a stage near you - Saturday Night Fever, Cry-Baby, 9 to 5 all have their charms but largely failed, while others that reveled in the trappings of live theatre and capitalized on them, have found both critical acclaim and long runs - Hairspray, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Xanadu and, I hope, Once and Newsies.  The latest entry in the movie-to-musical genre is Ghost: The Musical, a show that wants so badly to be thought of as a stage musical, the word is officially part of the title.  I admit that I walked into the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre skeptical at just how this beloved romantic thriller would translate to the stage.  And so I am surprised (in all the good ways) to say that this show is one of only a handful this season where I left the show looking forward to return visit and soon.  That is not to say that it is an entirely successful stage transformation.  In fact, there are a few times where its insistence on being THEATRICAL threatens to swallow the show, the actors and the audience up in its spectacle.  Those are the moments that keep this generally exciting, emotional adaptation from being uniformly excellent.

Let's take care of the unpleasantness first, by way of a short anecdote.  A few years ago, I went on a behind-the-scenes tour of Walt Disney World, and it wasn't the big stuff that impressed me, it was the details of crowd control that I haven't forgotten.  We were in EPCOT and the guide started talking about the shape of the concrete benches in different areas of the park: areas where they wanted you to sit and be comfortable and take it all in had rounded benches in round areas, while the areas where they want traffic moving faster have straight benches that are just uncomfortable enough around the back and knee areas that you don't want to stay there that long.  In short, rounded equals comfort and warmth, while straight and angular equals off-putting discomfort.  So how does this apply to Ghost? As designed by Rob Howell, the set is in constant motion, many times not even stopping during scenes.  Because of this, you are very aware of the set; the set structure itself is extremely angular, and, well, very off-putting.  This is not a good thing for the romantic parts, and only a marginally good thing for the more thrilling sequences. It is pretty clear that the creative team wanted the show to play like a movie, smoothly and quickly getting us through a familiar story. And this is a fundamental mistake in two ways: one, movies stop and focus when the important parts happen, and two, watching live theatre demands that the audience be carefully guided as to what to look at and then given the chance to see it.

But the constant motion and angular set aren't the worst of Ghost's issues.  No, that dubious distinction goes to the overpowering and overproduced video and projection design by Jon Driscoll.  Apparently, Mr. Driscoll has been given free reign to throw every new innovation in theatrical multimedia into one show.  We have title sequences that include a "fly over" of New York City (which might have been a welcome addition to Spider-Man), photos of actual city locations digitally projected onto LED screens, and even the very bricks of our couple's loft apartment.  None of that would be so bad separately.  But the one thing that threatens to kill many a special theatrical moment is the fully distracting use of icons moving at dizzying speeds to "support" the musical numbers: when we are on Wall Street, the electronic ticker tape runs down anything that isn't moving; when characters fantasize about wealth, hot pink $1M bills cascade down the back wall.  I think you get my point.  BUT as if this weren't distracting enough, during every single dance number, while the game ensemble is working through Ashley Wallen's hip-hop meets Broadway choreography, silhouettes of the same dancers are doing the same moves on the big screens.  And they are NEVER exactly in sync, either, which only adds to the distraction.  Worst of all, those projections are so bright that the live dancers themselves look like silhouettes.  If I were a dancer in this show, I'd be pissed.

That is not to say that the set and the projections are complete failures, either.  When they aren't at odds with the story, vying for our attention like a petulant teenager, a lot of it works.  Why?  Because when "the dazzle" is turned down, and the sets and projections serve the piece, they celebrate all that live performance can do that film can not.  Oddly enough, one aspect of the projections that really worked for me were the actual filmed sequences that are shown on the set on two occasions, and both times things are dramatically heightened.  When our romantic couple finally gets down to romantic business, shadowy closeups are shown while the real couple is making love on the sofa - closeups of her hand sliding down the center of his back, his lips caressing her ear... And later, when the three main characters are at a crossroads both in plot and in emotion, we see "memories" of happier times involving all three.  In both cases, the technology was used to support, not overwhelm the moment.  Similarly, the best set moments aren't always the ones with the biggest pieces, but rather the interesting visual created when the projected scenery is carefully juxtaposed with actual set pieces.  Both times we see the psychic's storefront next to the literal inside of her shop, that allows us to see both what is outside and inside in an interesting way.  And there is an entire sequence - in the subway - where the motion of the set adds tremendously to the tension and thrill of the moment.  In the space of a few minutes, we see ghosts fighting and terrifying the passengers from just about every conceivable angle.  It is live theatre's static point of view with the feel of film's ability to cut to different angles.  And it is astonishing!  If more of the physical production were like what I described above, where less is more, and technology doesn't overpower Ghost: The Musical would be an unqualified success.

I should also note that the lighting design by Hugh Vanstone is uniformly excellent, particularly in its use of darkness and shadow, and in lighting all of the ghosts in such an ethereal and lovely way.  Also, Bobby Aitken's sound design is as clear as a bell, both in the quiet moments and during the loud, rock-infused numbers.  (I'm thinking what these two accomplished is really what the folks over at Jesus Christ Superstar were going for.)  The technical star of this show is really Paul Kieve, who created the illusions for the show.  They are truly amazing, or jaw-dropping, as they say.  Sam walks through doors, puts his hands through solid objects, appears in mist, and even morphs from Oda Mae to Sam before your very eyes.  And those are just a few tricks you might remember from the film.  But there are two things about Kieve's magic that make it truly remarkable.  First, they are STAGE tricks, not camera tricks - they are happening live right before your eyes.  And two, as astonishing as they are, they are so well done in a matter-of-fact sort of way, that they never stop the show dead, or distract you to the point that you lose focus on where your eyes, mind and heart should be.

Since the book writer and the screenplay writer are one and the same person (Oscar winner Bruce Joel Rubin), I suppose that the fact that huge sequences of the musical's dialogue are verbatim from the film is acceptable.  In fact, in this case, it really works well, because it allows the music to function in interesting ways - both the songs and the lush, beautiful underscoring.  If there were an underscoring Tony, this would win easily.  It strikes me as interesting, and very telling, that the very modern score (music and lyrics by award-winning composers Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, with lyric also supplied by Mr. Rubin) in this very modern musical, function in the most sublimely old-fashioned way.  The book tells the story, and the songs take us inside the heads of each characters, providing back story ("Here Right Now" - the starting point of the central romantic relationship; "Three Little Words" - Sam can't say "I love you"), character development ("Are You a Believer?", "I'm Outta Here" - the complete character arc of Oda Mae), plot support ("You Gotta Let Go", "Focus" - where Sam learns about being a ghost trapped between worlds, and how he learns to fight from beyond reality), and perhaps most significantly, the sorrowful inner monologues of a woman trapped by grief ("With You" - a stunning work of grief articulated; "Suspend My Disbelief" - where Molly is starting to believe that Sam is still there guiding her).  The songs are catchy and meaningful, adding to, not detracting from, the plot.  (And yes, the film's iconic "Unchained Melody" makes two brief appearances - one funny, the other, as you might expect, to tear-jerking effect.)

All of the best uses of technology and slick direction in the world would not be able to bring this story to life without a decent cast to play the roles.  And this cast is really top-notch.  That Moya Angela and Carly Hughes are memorable at all is to their credit.  They play Oda Mae's sisters-in-crime at the psychic storefront she runs.  Oda Mae is the larger-than-life attraction, but they both manage to get noticed as the sassy, no nonsense backup to her show.  Lance Roberts makes a great, grounding impression as the Hospital Ghost, who takes Sam under his wing and tells him how the afterlife is going to be.  His act one number, "You Gotta Let Go" is a crowd-pleaser.  The other main ghost, the Subway Ghost, is a seething mass of anger, confusion and sadness, brought to life by Tyler McGee.  You wouldn't expect to feel much for such a mean, violent character, but Mr. McGee gets us to do just that when he wails, "It's not my fault!" as he exits into another passing subway.  He is a ghost caught between worlds and has no idea how to get out and make his own peace with life. Sam's killer, played by a no-holds-barred Michael Balderrama, gets the slimy parts of his character just right; he is chilling and pretty scary.

The very best decision made about this stage version was the conscious effort to hire actors who don't resemble or do impressions of their film counterparts.  Nowhere is the difference bigger and more effective than Da'Vine Joy Randolph's unique take on Oda Mae Brown, the fake psychic who turns out to have real skill with the other world.  Hers is an unenviable task: make us forget that Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar for the same role.  Stout in that warm, Mother Earth kind of way, Randolph is both world-worn sassy and sweetly cuddly.  And during act two, where she is both at once, she is an unstoppable force of nature.  Both of her numbers stop the show, and she gets the biggest hand at the curtain call - not because the others aren't as good, but because we can relate to her best of all - flaws and all.  Bryce Pinkham, such a comic delight in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, is all business here as Sam's best friend, co-worker, and, ultimately, a really bad man. He sings well, and even looks great with his shirt off - a tricky ploy to ingratiate himself with Molly.  But what makes Mr. Pinkham's portrayal so good is that you never doubt that his friendship and affection for Sam and Molly is/was genuine, and that it was his pure greed desperation that took him down the wrong, deadly path.

I hope that if Patrick Swayze can see this, that he approves of Richard Fleeshman as Sam Wheat.  Considerably younger than Swayze was, Fleeshman brings a youthful vitality to Sam when he is alive that is also a strong lesson here: the go-getter young guy needs to slow down and appreciate what he has.  And this youthfulness is also a very telling aspect of how Sam acts when he first becomes a ghost.  Going after what you want isn't enough in the afterlife apparently, and it is a bitter lesson to learn for a young boy who had the world at his feet when he was alive, and who must no grow up into the man he will never be in order to save the love of his life.  Fleeshman exudes confident charisma AND a palpable sense of confusion, and later, purpose.  He is poster boy handsome (those abs are the best scenery on Broadway) with a winning smile, and a great singing voice.  I'd like to see him in a role that requires a little more dramatic heavy-lifting.

The casting of Molly as someone slightly older than Sam raises some interesting sub-textual questions - why is she allowing him to "keep" her while she works on her art?  Why is she attracted to this younger guy who won't commit?  Looks?  His money?  How did he get to a top banking position so quickly?  How do they afford a $700/sf loft?  All of that ends up having little bearing after one witnesses the powerfully moving performance of Caissie Levy, probably best known on Broadway for playing Sheila in the recent revival of Hair.  With this role, though, she really comes into her own.  Her grief fairly pours off the stage as she tries to come to grips with such an unexpected loss.  And watching her work through the anger, disbelief and fear when confronted with the impossibility that Sam is trying to communicate with her is probably the strongest aspect of this production.  And what a beautiful, powerful voice she has!  I dare you not to cry at "With You" or bristle with excitement as she comes to see the truth about Sam.  Best if all, her chemistry with all three of her co-stars raises the show to a higher level - her give and take with Randolph, her misguided trust and exposed vulnerabilities with Pinkham, and the sexual and believable romantic sparks with Fleeshman.  The subtleties of her performance are never lost in the enormity of the production.

Finally, when director Matthew Warchus lets the power of the script and score soar on its own - mostly in the quieter, more intimate scenes - Ghost is really terrific.  And when he holds the reins tighter in terms of the show's spectacle, Ghost is a wonder to behold.  He has created a mostly successful stage adaptation of a popular film.  One wishes that he and the powers that be had a bit more confidence in the piece itself rather than overdoing the scenery and multimedia.  Still, there is so much to enjoy here once you dig through the excess. Less really can be more.

(Production photos by Joan Marcus)

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