by: Dan Mason (@djdan1079)
Broadway has been overrun with musicals based on movies over the last several seasons. Some, like Billy Elliott, were the toast of Broadway, while Legally Blonde and Shrek lost most of their investment. However, this might be the first season in recent memory where EVERY Tony nominated musical is based on a movie. Newsies and Once are the presumed frontrunners for best musical, while Leap of Faith’s producers rushed their show to the St James to be in consideration. None of those show’s movie predecessors can boast the commercial success that Ghost had. The 1990 romantic drama made over $217 million in the United states (a ridiculous figure for that era), and was nominated for several Oscars, including best picture.
The musical adaptation in previews now at the Lunt-Fontainne theatre is unlikely to win the Tony, but it is perhaps the first musical of its kind that will make the audience feel like they are watching the actual movie, a fact that simultaneously works to the benefit and detriment of the show.
No expense is spared in this big budget adaptation, and that is clear from the onset, where the Ghost logo wipes across the scrim onstage just like you would expect to see in the opening credits of a movie. Over the next two and a half hours, the audience will be entranced by amazing onstage illusions. Characters will walk through doors, actors will rise up from their dead bodies that are still laying onstage, villains will be dragged away to the depths of hell. All of it, expertly staged by illusionist Paul Kieve, will leaving you asking “How’d they do that?” As opposed to Spiderman, where it’s obvious the actors are attached to harnesses and cables, Ghost manages to achieve many equally spectacular effects without the audience seeing the sleight of hand that made it happen.
The stage trickery, on its own, is enough to make Ghost an interesting, oftentimes enjoyable, theatrical experience, but the creative team isn’t willing to leave it at just that. The show also uses a ton of LED projection panels across the stage throughout the show. The hustle of New York City residents going about their day is all projected across the stage, even during numbers where a large ensemble is filling the stage acting out the same things. The result is an often too busy stage and moments of sensory overload, which detract from the actual storytelling. This is certainly a case where a little less would ultimately be more.
And really, at the end of the day, isn’t the audience who pays $120 to see Ghost there because they remember the love story? Sadly, during the first act, the relationships get lost amidst the visual effects. As the couple Sam and Molly, Caissie Levy and Richard Fleeshman seem to have great chemistry. Levy (Hair, Wicked) might be one of the top 5 female belters working today. Her voice shines on her act 1 ballad, “With You”. As an actress, however, she seems more than a little wooden, a fact that isn’t helped by some terrible dialogue she is given to work with. Fleeshman (West End’s Legally Blonde), is a recording artist in the UK who has opened for Elton John, so as you can imagine, he’s a tremendous vocalist. While he also struggles with the script’s limitations, he fares much better in portraying Sam’s anger about his fate and desperation to save Molly in the second act. I will likely be in the minority that argue that Fleeshman comes across as the biggest star on the stage, a title that will likely be bestowed upon Da’vine Joy Randolph, as psychic Oda Mae Brown.
Randolph is a fabulous comedienne and consistently brings the house down as she nails every one of the zinger’s made famous by Whoopi Goldberg in the movie (“Molly– you in trouble girrrrrrlllll”). Perhaps that is why I wasn’t as enthusiastic about Randolph as others will be. To me, her performance felt more like a re-creation of Goldberg’s than something original. As big of a presence as Randolph was in her scene work, she seemed less confident delivering Oda Mae’s songs, including the 11 o’ clock number, “I’m Outta Here”. I overheard at intermission that she had missed several shows with vocal problems, so perhaps I didn’t see her at 100 percent at this performance.
All of the major moments of the film have made it to the stage as well, including the pottery scene between Sam and Molly, although it’s a lot less erotic here. A fact that is somewhat confusing since the show does not shy away from their sexual chemistry in the first act.
I will be honest, once the second act got rolling, Ghost ultimately sucked me in. That’s when the show relies less on gimmicks, works harder to tell the story, and ultimately finds its soft, gooey, center. Sniffles and sobs could be heard around me in the show’s closing moments, although I wouldn’t say the show was a home run with everyone leaving the theatre. It will be interesting to see how open producers are to continuing to make changes as previews continue, seeing as this product has already been worked on during its West End run. If it were my show, I’d try to find a stronger opening scene with better dialogue. As it stands now, Sam, Molly, and their friend Carl are stumbling around their new apartment in Brooklyn. The dialogue consists mostly of “Hey guys” and “Isn’t this great, guys”, and it doesn’t really work. I would also look for places to simplify the staging, I don’t need projections of silhouettes roaming the streets on top of actors modern dancing to represent the same thing. The LED screens work better to enhance special effects, like in the train scene where Sam is beat up in the afterlife, than they do as a scenic backdrop.
To the show’s credit, the technical aspects ran flawlessly at this performance, which is no easy feat given that they are only a week into previews. Overall, there are many great parts to Ghost, even if those parts do not seem to form a cohesive whole. If they can unbusy the first act of the show and find more clarity in their character development, Ghost has a chance to enjoy a healthy run with tourists and the “date night” crowd.
Grade withheld as the show is still in previews.