Ghost The Musical: Theater Review

Caissie Levy and Richard Fleeshman
Death warmed over.

The popular 1990 movie that won Oscars for Whoopi Goldberg and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin gets a musical makeover in this production by Matthew Warchus, with songs by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard.

NEW YORK – Full confession: The 1990 movie Ghost is on my top 10 list of that decade’s more shameless pleasures. Demi Moore with the Pierrot haircut and artfully applied teardrops; poor Patrick Swayze with his single expression of intense concentration; Whoopi Goldberg at her ghetto-fabulous funniest. What’s not to love? Turns out plenty in this leaden stage musicalization of the supernatural romantic thriller, a flavorless hash that is unrelentingly loud, vulgar and stunningly tone-deaf to the ways in which the world has changed since that era of sweet young yuppie innocence.

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In addition to book writer Bruce Joel Rubin, who won an Oscar for his original screenplay, the creative team also includes pop royalty in composer/co-lyricists Dave Stewart (formerly half of The Eurythmics) and Glen Ballard (the producer and songwriter behind hits from Alanis Morissette, Michael Jackson and countless others). They should be thankful they found a resourceful director in Matthew Warchus, because the material they gave him to work with has all the substance and charm of wet ectoplasm. Ghost The Musical is soulless.

The show’s saving grace is its dazzling technology. Splashed across a front scrim and giant rear- and side-panel LED screens, Jon Driscoll’s video and projection designs present a kinetic display of New York cityscapes, Financial District bustle and twinkly afterlife darkness. The train action, in particular, is visually exciting, even if it’s hard to take the ghost that haunts the city subway system (Tyler McGee), a poor man’s Eminem who yells every line. (This is a deafeningly overmiked musical in which pretty much everyone, whether speaking or singing, shouts ALL THE TIME.)

Another asset in a show in which many characters inhabit the spirit world are the nifty apparition tricks courtesy of illusion chief Paul Kieve. People appear and evaporate with a sleight of hand and a blinding flash of Hugh Vanstone’s lights that will keep audiences guessing about how it’s all achieved.

But that’s about it for the good stuff. Rather than adapting his screenplay, Rubin has lobbed it wholesale onto the stage, often with huge chunks of dialogue intact. There are cosmetic updates. Artist Molly (Caissie Levy) and investment banker Sam (Richard Fleeshman) now move into a Brooklyn loft instead of Tribeca, and the funds being illegally maneuvered by their treacherous friend Carl (Bryce Pinkham) are now $10 million (up from four for inflation). But there’s no sense of the material being reconceived for another medium, let alone another time.

That failure proves irksome from the opening moments. Did nobody stop to think that investment bankers now rank close to Satan on the popularity scale? As Sam and Molly sing “Here Right Now,” the first of many unmemorable songs about nothing, there’s no incentive to share in their self-fulfillment celebration. Even more problematic is “More,” an anthem to greed in which Wall Street brokers in power suits stride about and strike poses in Ashley Warren’s distractingly emphatic choreography. This number begs for Occupy activists to storm the theater and pelt the stage with rotten produce.

Of course, unlike sleazy Carl, Sam is supposed to be the sensitive guy because he pauses frequently to wonder whether they really deserve all this happiness and ponder how quickly it could crumble. Which it does when Sam is killed in a botched holdup planned by Carl to get his buddy’s office computer passcode.

But whether he’s alive or suspended in the afterlife, Sam, like Molly and Carl, is bland and one-dimensional. That’s primarily because Stewart and Ballard’s generic songs give them one number after another that are interchangeable variations on “I want it all,” “I have it all” or “I lost it all.” Song titles like “Life Turns on a Dime” are too depressingly hackneyed to contemplate. And considering these guys’ pedigree, how did they manage to write a dozen numbers and not come up with a single decent hook?

That function is left to the Righteous Brothers hit “Unchained Melody,” appropriated from the movie and heard in several versions in the show, one of them in Spanish. Yes, Molly’s pottery wheel does make an appearance. But it’s rolled out rather dutifully late in the action, and she barely gets it spinning before being interrupted by a knock at the door. Sam and Molly’s hot-and-heavy makeout session happens earlier here, without the stimulant of wet clay but with some Skinemax-style accompaniment from the projections department. Was that really a naked butt I saw?

While Goldberg’s role in the movie was a blast of fresh comic breeze in the genre-blending mix, the spiritual advisor Oda Mae Brown (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) here fills the sassy black mama component in a way that’s become tiresomely routine for a Broadway musical. Randolph is funny, and she gets a lively bling-laden number called “I’m Outta Here,” in which she fantasizes about what $10 million might buy. But she pushes hard for every laugh. And designer Rob Howell’s heavy-handedness borders on insult in costuming her like a tacky drag queen on a Pride parade float. But that’s in keeping with a musical terrified of subtlety.

On press night, a hiccup with the scenery caused an alarming crunch as walls collided and the show was halted mid-way through the second act for hasty repairs. That 20 minutes of quiet chat time with folks in neighboring seats was a high point. It also brought to mind another show plagued early in its run by technical glitches, Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, which suddenly isn’t looking quite so irredeemable.

Venue: Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Richard Fleeshman, Caissie Levy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Bryce Pinkham, Tyler McGee, Lance Roberts, Michael Balderrama, Moya Angela, Carly Hughes, Jennifer Noble, Jason Babinsky, Jennifer Sanchez, Daniel J. Watts, Vasthy Mompoint, Alison Luff, Jeremy Davis
Director: Matthew Warchus
Music: Dave Stewart, Glen Ballard
Lyrics: Dave Stewart, Glenn Ballard, Bruce Joel Rubin
Book: Bruce Joel Rubin, based on his screenplay for the Paramount Pictures film
Set and costume designer: Rob Howell
Lighting designer: Hugh Vanstone
Sound designer: Bobby Aitken
Video & projection designer: Jon Driscoll
Illusions: Paul Kieve
Music supervisor: Kristen Blodgette
Musical supervisor, arranger & orchestrations: Christopher Nightingale
Musical director: David Holcenberg
Choreographer: Ashley Wallen
Presented by Colin Ingram, Hello Entertainment/David Garfinkle, Donovan Mannato, MJE Productions, Patricia Lambrecht, Adam Silberman, in association with Coppel/Watt/Withers/Bewick, Fin Gray/Michael Melnick, Mayerson/Gould Hauser/Tysoe, Richard Chaifetz & Jill Chaifetz, Jeffrey B. Hecktman, Land Line Productions, Gilbert Productions/Marion/Shahar, Fresh Glory Productions/Bruce Carnegie-Brown, by special arrangement with Paramount Pictures