Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 23, 2012
Ghost Book & lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin. Music & lyrics by Dave Stewart & Glen Ballard. Based on the Paramount Pictures film written by Bruce Joel Rubin. "Unchained Melody" written by Hy Zaret and Alex NorthCourtesy of Frank Music Corp. (ASCAP) Directed by Matthew Warchus. Choreography by Ashley Wallen. Designed by Rob Howell. Sound by Bobby Aitken. Illusions by Paul Kieve. Lighting by Hugh Vanstone. Video & projection design by Jon Driscoll.
Although I walked into the Lunt-Fontanne positive I'd be able to resist the paranormal allure of the new musical there, it didn't take me long to realize that doing so would require supernatural abilities I do not possess. Librettist-lyricist Bruce Joel Rubin (who won an Oscar for his 1990 source screenplay) and composer-lyricists Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard have written one of the finest film-to-stage adaptations in current memory, which Matthew Warchus has directed with energy and passion. Add in a better-than-necessary cast led by U.K. actor Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy (best known from playing Sheila in the 2009 revival of Hair), both of whom originated their roles in London, and you have an evening that startles with just how good it is.
In relative terms, at any rate. I'm not willing to go as far as saying that this is a great musical, or even an objectively good one. (Another girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-meets-shade offering, Carousel, eclipses it by several dozen orders of magnitude, for example.) But it positively glows by the standards of all this Broadway season's new offerings and the likes of most other recent movie-inspired outings, such as 9 to 5, A Catered Affair, Billy Elliot, Catch Me If You Can, Cry-Baby, Elf, Legally Blonde, Sister Act, The Wedding Singer, Young Frankenstein, and latter-day Disney shows Tarzan, Mary Poppins, and The Little Mermaid. Ghost displays unusual quantities of craft, cunning, and heart, and because it always keeps sight of what it is and what it wants to do, it has no trouble pulling you along with it.
One of the main reasons it works so well is also one of its main drawbacks: It is one of the most faithful — if not the most faithful — of its beleaguered genre. No detail has been dropped, fudged, or even glimpsed askance in telling its story of love transcending the grave. When Sam (Fleeshman), a high-powered Wall Street banker, is killed in an apparently random mugging that leaves his soul with unfinished business and his girlfriend Molly (Levy) craving closure, no surprises unfold. Their dialogue is, in many cases, identical to its earlier incarnation, and the subplots surrounding Sam's scheming friend and colleague Carl (Bryce Pinkham) and the medium Oda Mae Brown (Da'vine Joy Randolph), whom Sam enlists to help him transmit messages to the living world, are Madame Tussauds–quality reproductions.
Yet you're never so much wrapped up in asking "how" these things occurred because, against the odds, you actually care about these people and their problems. Rubin's scrupulous fidelity helps, of course: The romance between Sam and Molly that dances on a thread of incommunicative tension (she needs him to say "I love you"; he can only say "ditto" when she confesses first), the immense pressure Carl is under trying to stay at the top of his game, the loneliness and tentative acceptance Molly exudes when escaping into Carl's arms at the worst possible time — all these are here, and they all come through as richly as they should.
Where this production falters is in its "busy"-ness. Set designer Rob Howell's attractive series of rotating walls and set pieces give this fantasy New York a phantasmal feel, but the constantly shifting LED panels that figure so prominently in it threaten to give you motion sickness rather than a visceral impression of the City that Doesn't Sleep. Ashley Wallen's choreography strains in its restless attempts to summon the frenetic pulse of Manhattan. And John Driscoll's full-stage video clips, depicting close-ups of action you don't need magnified, such as Carl, Sam, and Molly laughing during happier times, or Molly and Sam making love for what they don't know is the final time, are all overkill. (Howell's costumes and particularly Hugh Vanstone's lights, which gorgeously and sharply delineate life and afterlife, however, are spot on.)
Such approaches, which apply an uncomfortable video game aesthetic to the proceedings, are not warranted given the strength of everything else here. The rest of Warchus's staging is dynamic and constantly surprising, yet it never overwhelms the human story at the narrative's heart. And if the acting doesn't erase memories of the film quartet (Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Tony Goldwyn, and Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg), it's nonetheless fine. Fleeshman's Everyman earnestness, paired with Levy's palpable sexiness and warmth, make them a dynamic couple you can't help but root for. Pinkham tempers Carl's nastiness with a terrified desperation that helps that character make complete sense. Randolph pushes too hard, but is fine — if not affecting — as Oda May.
What is affecting about Ghost is how seriously its creators have taken it. By embracing all it has to say about loss and wrapping it, without apology and without mocking, in an inventive theatricality, they've amplified rather than diminished what they started with. This is how adaptations are supposed to work. One wishes Rubin, Stewart, Ballard, and Warchus were willing (or, given the show's "special arrangement" with Paramount Pictures, able) to leave the movie still further behind. But by refusing to be chained to or limited by what came before, they've turned out a musical that, although less than haunting, is more substantial than theatregoers had any right to expect.