Sunday, April 22, 2012

Review of "Ghost"

I have to admit that I was very pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed the new musical, Ghost, with its power pop score and sometimes brilliant stagecraft and effects.  It’s not like I was going in with negative thoughts, but the recent track record of movies transformed into musicals, most recently Sister Act and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, have not been very satisfying.  Still, for all the positives, there were two aspects of the production, which were quite irritating and exasperating.  More on this later.

As most people know, Ghost is based on the 1990 film that starred Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg, for which she won the Oscar.  [Spoiler Alert:  if you have not seen the movie be forewarned if you read ahead].  The plot of the show closely follows the movie.  Sam, played by Richard Fleeshman, and Molly, portrayed by Caissie Levy, are young and madly in love.  One night, on their way home from a romantic dinner a robbery turns sour and Sam is shot dead.  Grief-stricken, Molly is consoled by the couple’s mutual friend, Carl, played by Bryce Pinkham who, unbeknownst to her, was behind the murder for sinister reasons.  Sam has become a ghost, bound to the world of the living until there is a resolution to his killing.  Enter one Oda Mae Brown, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, a storefront psychic that Sam finds he can communicate through to not only warn Molly, but also thwart the devious plans of his former friend and colleague.

Ghost works because the audience becomes involved in the story by Bruce Joel Rubin, who adapted his Academy Award winning screenplay for the musical.  Choppy and hurried as it may be live, the plot is bewitching, and the sentiment and characters are engrossing.  Caissie Levy, as Molly, provides emotional depth to her character, who is understandably devastated from her lover’s death.  Levy possesses both a powerful singing voice, as demonstrated in “Rain/Hold On,” as well a plaintive sorrowfulness in “Nothing Stops Another Day.”

Richard Fleeshman, well-apportioned and handsome, as Sam, has a fine voice, but lacks a dynamic presence.  True, he is a ghost for most of the show, but too often Director Matthew Warchus has him sitting, observing, fading into the background.  Even those moments where he is the focus, such as the marvelous scene in the subway system, Fleeshman lacks the charisma and power to command the action.  Bryce Pinkham, is a scheming sleaze as his treacherous undertaking begins to unravel.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph is fabulous as Oda Mae Brown, the psychic who discovers her fabricated powers to communicate with the dead are, in fact, real.  She is the spark plug that kick starts the musical every time she appears.

Rockers Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, along with lyrical contributions from Bruce Joel Rubin, provide a highly satisfying score of up tempo anthems and heartrending ballads.

Many of the special effects of the show provided the requisite ghostly atmosphere to the production.  When Sam, now dead, first tries to open a door and his hand passes through unimpeded there was an audible murmur of awe throughout the audience.  Likewise, the initial subway scene when he encounters the subway ghost was quite spectacular.  Sam’s walk to the heavens at the conclusion of the show was also impressive.

So, what’s my beef with Ghost?  First, and foremost, is the continuous and over-reliance on video projections.  Director Matthew Warchus has been quoted as seeking to have music video-like production values.  But when minimalism and intimacy should be the guide, the audience is whacked over the head with pulsating lights and frivolous videos.  Right at the start, when Molly and Sam are in the midst of a passionate embrace, the stage becomes alive with giant size projections of the two caressing and sharing intimate moments.  Why?  Doesn’t the creative team trust the material enough to have the two actors alone on stage without these wispy visions swirling on the semi-invisible projection screen?  Throughout the show the almost non-stop projections distract from the action and pretty much blot out the ensemble.  It wasn’t until the curtain call that I could see their faces (and I was in the eighth row of the orchestra).

The second problem is the character Oda Mae Brown.  Let me restate that.  The problem is not enough Oda Mae Brown.  Ms. Randolph brought the stage alive with her physicality, power, and especially her in-your-face attitude.  Even though she is a supporting character the musical would have been greatly enhanced by squeezing in more of her antics and less music video dance routines.  Throwing in a big, splashy—and pointless—production number for her, “I’m Outta Here,” just before the climax of the show served little purpose other than to showcase her exceptional talents.

Director Matthew Warchus skillfully guides the action through the numerous set pieces.  The pacing of the show is one of its strengths.  His work with the actors, Richard Fleeshman not withstanding, in the more intimate and less busy settings produces a sense of foreboding, intimacy, playfulness.  I just wished he hadn’t insisted on those maddening projections.

Ghost, somewhat imperfect, but still, an entertaining time on Broadway.

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