Now back from Europe with summer adventures behind me, and with the fall season well underway, it seems an appropriate time to catch up on a highlight of Show Business from “across the pond.” To be more specific, allow me to report on the very interesting production of GHOST The Musical currently playing at London’s Piccadilly Theatre with solid and creative direction from Matthew Warchus. Featuring music & lyrics by the team of Dave Stewart & Glen Ballard, book & additional lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin, and fine musical direction from James McKeon, the show is based on the 1990 motion picture of the same name that starred Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg. This latest effort bravely takes on the task of converting that endlessly popular film into a stage musical, and it largely succeeds in doing so. Perhaps that is why the show has recently been slated to open on Broadway, with previews to begin in March 2012 before an April 23rd opening at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
The familiar plot begins with tragedy, and while heavily dramatic, it has such delicious moments of hilarity (and such a satisfying conclusion), that it is no surprise the film became an audience favorite. Young lovers Molly (Caissie Levy) and Sam (Richard Fleeshman) have such a close bond that when he is tragically murdered in one of the opening scenes, his ghost lingers on to protect her from dangers of which she is unaware. Thereby hangs our tale. The staging has a film-like opening that makes one feel the credits are about to roll. A starry sky is descending and a smoky mist is rising to create an air of mystery that is diminished a bit by an orchestra that is initially much too loud. We find ourselves in contemporary New York City as Sam and Molly join Sam’s banking industry colleague, Carl (Andrew Langtree), for the pleasing melody of the opening number, “Here Right Now.” The piercing purity of Miss Levy’s voice becomes immediately apparent. Amid visuals that include a kind of 3-D photomontage, shadow play and cityscape transitions, there seems a kind of romantic “Dirty Dancing” atmosphere emerging. Soon we find Molly and Sam in their new apartment where, in an adorable way, he treats her to a lusty and seductive rendition of their favorite tune, the classic “Unchained Melody,” with gyrations that have hints of Elvis and Michael Jackson.
Next, with moving sidewalks adding to the excitement as young urban professionals dash to and fro, we have a frantic taste of busy life in the financial corridors and streets of New York that is cleverly and technologically captured during the vibrant ensemble song, “More.” That vibrancy is enhanced with sound (designer, Bobby Aitken), light (designer, Hugh Vanstone), illusions (designer, Paul Kiev), video projection (designer, Jon Driscoll), and robotic choreography (designer, Ashley Wallen), all displayed on the very electronic set of designer, Rob Howell. It surrounds the entire back and sidewalls of the stage area with the kinds of huge electronic video screens one might associate with the largest sports stadiums. Throughout the performance those screens would be a key to the unique look of the show as their brilliant pulsations and images generate visual excitement in number
after number. There would be times when those visual extravaganzas seemed designed more to dazzle than advance the plot, but the eye-popping excitement was certainly a new kind of theatrical adventure.
Molly is a talented artist and clearly hoping for marriage during a cozy dinner with Sam in the lovely Luigi’s Italian Restaurant. There is romantic rapture as the two sing a charming duet of “Three Little Words,” but hopes are quickly dashed when Sam is killed during a street mugging as the two walk toward home. The murder is chillingly staged, even for we fans of the film who knew it was coming. At the hospital it is clear Sam is dead, and effective holographic illusions continue as Sam’s ghost meets other spirits. A Hospital Ghost (played by Mark White) joins Sam’s ghost (and the talented ensemble) for the tongue-in-cheek merriment of a Vaudeville-style “Ball of Wax.” The song introduces Sam to his new reality in the spirit world. Lyrics like, “Who’s ready? Ain’t anybody ready,” and “It’s too late to pray. It’s all over now. It’s a whole new ball of wax,” leave the audience contemplating its own mortality.
Following his own funeral, Sam’s ghost continues to look out for Molly, but his breathless hysteria when a burglar is spotted entering Molly’s apartment seems a bit overdone by Mr. Fleeshman. Next we enter the spooky world of nutty psychic, Oda Mae Brown (Lisa Davina Phillip substituted for Sharon D Clarke at the performance I attended). That scene opens with the rousing and gospel-style, “Are You a Believer?” featuring Oda Mae and her entourage. Miss Phillip’s brassy portrayal seemed at first to lack subtlety. Happily, her ultimately amusing performance would soon prove to be a real winner. Meanwhile, Miss Levy thrillingly captures Molly’s grief with clear-voiced tenderness in the poignant song, “With You.” In Levy’s capable hands Molly’s desperate longing seems to rise to the stratosphere and then descend dreamily to earth.
Act One closes with the rich, melodic counterpoints of, “Suspend My Disbelief / I Had a Life,” from Sam, Molly, Carl and ensemble, while flashes of a blood-red tickertape seem to
symbolize the emerging revelation that it was Carl’s greed and betrayal in a financial scheme that were central to Sam’s murder. The ghost of Sam needs plenty of second act help from psychic Oda Mae to convince Molly he is still a presence as he tries to thwart Carl’s schemes.
When Act Twobegins amid whirling umbrellas and an ominous storm, there is another soaring counterpoint vocal as the ensemble sings “Rain,” and Sam and Molly duet with the quiet desperation of, “Hold On.” The song, “Life Turns On A Dime,” seemed at first predictable and formulaic in its rhyme scheme, but evolved into a strong trio for Sam, Molly and Carl. There were amazing special effects in the noisy subway scene that followed. It featured Adebayo Bolaji as a Subway Ghost who sings the very loud, often inaudible and somewhat unfocused song, “Focus.” Another expendable number was “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Miracle,” as it showcased the assorted spirits at Oda Mae’s séance table. Much more satisfying was the touching, “Nothing Stops Another Day,” a really memorable gem from Levy. I found myself hoping I might one day see her in concert.
For really zany fun, don’t miss Oda Mae’s hilarious exit with, “I’m Outta Here.” In a hot-pink satin dress dripping with a lush white fur coat, she would strut her stuff in a hat that could have stolen the show at Prince William’s wedding. Accompanied by a powerful ensemble cast in glittering black formal attire, this number was a sure-fire crowd pleaser. But the final touching moments are reserved for Molly and Sam in the sweet intimacy of their “Unchained Melody” duet. The departing ghost of Sam sums it up best: “It’s amazing Molly! The love inside — You take it with you!”
For video samples from the now closed London production visit: http://www.piccadillytheatre.org/ghost-the-musical/
For current information on Piccadilly Theatre offerings visit: http://piccadilly.londontheatres.co.uk/
While both the London and New York productions of GHOST The Musical have closed, the information on that earlier transition may be of interest: http://www.ghostthemusicallondon.com/ghost-the-musical-to-open-on-broadway/ .