'Ghost: The Musical': Theater Review

Lame Broadway musical of popular film packs plenty of spectacle and obvious sentiment into a standardized touring package.

The Oscar-winning Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore romantic fantasy has been turned into a Broadway musical, put on tour and brought to the Pantages in Hollywood.

If I pale at writing this review, it's because I've just seen a Ghost. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin won an Oscar for the 1990 film as did Whoopi Goldberg, supporting Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. The film was also nominated for best picture back when there were only five a year. But all that star power and the sub-Borzage skills of director Jerry Zucker helped to camouflage the flimsy clunkiness of the story's material, exposed in all its clumsy manipulation by a musical adaptation that emphasizes artificial big moments and sentimental sign-posting over grace notes and anything else that might distinguish it from plain-wrap romanticism.

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Sam Wheat (Steven Grant Douglas), a young Wall Street success, and ceramist Molly Jenson (Katie Postotnik) have just moved into a fabulous fix-up Brooklyn apartment and are edging toward marriage when Sam is murdered in a staged mugging. Sam's ghost remains invisible yet earthbound, capable of supernatural powers but powerless to reach out to the grief-stricken Molly — except through the intercession of phony medium Oda Mae Brown (Carla R. Stewart), who feels panicked by the onset of true psychic powers. Sam must find a way to protect Molly from harm at the hands of his money-laundering, two-faced colleague Carl (Robby Haltiwanger), whose blandness is perhaps the only counterbalance to his mustache-twirling villainy.

The comic, spiritual and romantic elements are so generic that only the slightest pretext is made to create any character or situation beyond signaling stereotypes, offering thundering cues as to how to react to every situation. There is no progression or development, only the invocation of a fuzzy pedestrian transcendentalism. It's as if our feelings are being subject to chiropractic adjustment, entertainment by carefully applied blunt force. By contrast, Topper bubbled.

Fatally for a musical, the songs reinforce the innate phoniness with pop lyrics devoid of nutritional content and music of such little character that the ornamental belting can sound like braying, despite the good voices of the cast. Composers and co-lyricists Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics fame but more recently a songwriter with and producer for Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Katy Perry and Bon Jovi) and Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette, Michael Jackson, Aerosmith, Dave Matthews, Christina Aguilera) may together have sold a quarter-billion albums. Yet for all their prolific success, they have mastered the art of formula, having here produced a full program of anonymous soundtrack power ballads and anemic novelty numbers.

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It's something of a pity because there is a lot of misapplied theatrical talent on display under strenuous yet savvy direction by Matthew Warhus. While the show elements may lack conviction, they are topnotch, if spottily credited. The production design is smartly tricked out, if at times self-consciously "cinematic," and the costumes and choreography are vivid despite the roteness of the conceptions. In particular, the stage special effects are rather impressive, a very 21st-century translation of 19th-century Belasco-style spectacle: Spectral figures pass through apparently impermeable barriers yet are unable to break through the invisible shield separating the dead from the living, literalizing the imagined quest of the soul for connection with our uncomprehending bodies.

But when — spoiler alert — Carl's soul rises from his corpse only to be sucked downward into red-lighted hell, there is none of the existential terror that was felt when the same stunt was accomplished so much more simply the week before in the David Lang opera in Long Beach (even though that dematerializing character was a complete cipher), because there we were provided a musical and dramatic context for the experience, and here it is merely an opportunity for ostentatious display. 

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Yet who's to quibble with brand-name uniformity? Ghost: The Musical, which may have died on Broadway after a mere 136 performances in 2012, now resurrects itself through this touring edition of the U.K. production, reaching out to connect with its audience on the road: The Pantages was near capacity at the first Sunday matinee and it played to them like Ghostbusters.

Venue: Pantages Theatre (through July 13), moves to Segerstrom Center, Costa Mesa (July 29 through August 10)
Cast: Steven Grant Douglas, Katie Postotnik, Carla R. Stewart, Robby Haltiwanger, Fernando Contreras, Brandon Curry, Evette Marie White, Lydia Warr, Hana Freeman, Shannan E. Johnson
Director: Matthew Warchus
Book & Lyrics: Bruce Joel Rubin, based on the Paramount Pictures film written by him
Music & Lyrics: Dave Stewart & Glen Ballard
Choreographer: Ashley Wallen
Scenic & Costume Design: not credited in touring production (Rob Howell Tony-nominated for original Broadway production)
Lighting Design: Hugh Vanstone, recreated by Joel Shier
Sound Designer: Bobby Aitken
Video & Projection Designer: Jon Driscoll
Musical Arranger & Orchestrator: Christopher Nightingale
Illusions: Paul Kieve