Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Ghost the Musical
Driving to the Old Log Theatre with the windows open on a warm summer night and taking in a show feels like a ritual. If my information is correct, Old Log is the oldest continuous running theater in Minnesota. It's located in a pretty spot in Excelsior. If you can get to the theater a little early, you can take a walk by the adjacent pond and listen to the frogs croak as the sun starts to set. If you want to come extra early, you can have a pre-show dinner at the little restaurant inside the theater building.
I did have fun the other night, seeing Ghost the Musical at the Old Log. But I would have enjoyed it more if it had not been for a serious technical glitch. The night I saw the show, the music and sound effects were so unbearably loud they all but drowned out the actors voices. Blasted in through overhead speakers, the sound was so intense that at times I covered my ears. The reason I'm calling this a glitch is because every other time I've seen a musical at Old Log, the sound has been fine. I am completely confident they will correct the problem immediately and it won't happen in future performances. That said, I don't know how useful this review will be since I feel as if I missed out of on some of the dialogue and lyrics. Please take what follows in light of that reservation.
Ghost the Musical is based on the popular 1990 movie, which starred Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze, and Whoopi Goldberg. Like the movie, the show is half-romance, half-murder mystery, with comic interludes. Its 100% fluff, but there is a crucial difference between low-grade and high-quality fluff. The Old Log's production falls into the category of high-grade fluff, largely because of Eric Morris' witty direction, as well as the talented, energetic cast he's assembled.
Set in New York in the 1990s, Ghost tells the story of a young couple, Sam Wheat (Frank Moran) and Molly Jensen (Mollie Fischer), who live together in a big Brooklyn flat and are madly in love. Pre-millenium Brooklyn wasn't nearly so glamorousor expensive to live inas the borough presently is. Still, Sam and Molly's roomy apartment with its high ceilings and unfinished brick walls would have qualified as a find even twenty-five years ago. Sam works in finance, and Molly is a ceramic artist. One night when the two are on their way home from a gallery opening that features Molly's work, they are held up at gunpoint by a guy named Willie Lopez (a strong Jake Cáceres). Theres a struggle, Sam is shot, and his spirit leaves his body. Ghost Sam wakes up in limbo (or is it Purgatory?). He can't move on (up or down) because he's got unfinished business in the living world.
Seeking Molly, Sam returns to his old haunts (pun intended) and discovers an intruder who turns out to be Willie. Sam soon learns that his murder wasn't random. Willie was a hired gun and Sam's murder was arranged by his co-worker and seeming best friend Carl Bruner (Mathias Becker). Carl wanted to get his greedy hands on an account that Sam controlled and shift a cool ten million to a private bank (and then there's something about a deal with drug makers that wasn't clear to me). Carl needed Willie to get Sam's wallet, where Sam kept the number of the relevant account, but Willie screwed up. Now the wallet is in Molly's possession and she is in danger. Sam wants to warn her, but part of the frustration of being a ghost is that you can't be seen or heard by the living. By happenstance, Sam stumbles upon the one person who can hear hima fashion-challenged neighborhood psychic named Oda Mae Brown (Heather McElrath).
Except for the few moments when someone tries to say something pithy, the dialogue is mostly pleasant or sitcom funny. Erik Paulson's set captures the gritty, foreboding feel of pre-millenium Brooklyn, as well as the dark-lit interiors with the kind of plastic retro-furniture so popular during this period. Miko Simmons' projections of moving subway cars and glass-and-steel mid-town office building are also richly evocative of the setting.
Bruce Joel Rubin, who wrote both the screenplay and the musical, builds suspense with a slow reveal. The plot is intricate and tight and each scene exposes another piece of the puzzle. There are no loose threads. Given that two of the three songwriters, Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, have written for major rock bands, I was surprised by how underwhelming I found the score to be. The only song that was memorable was "Unchained Melody," the classic Righteous Brothers ballad, which was held over from the movie. Frank Moran as Sam does a gorgeous rendition.
Director Morris keeps things moving along at a nice clip. His staging is clever but dramatically sound, and he makes innovative use of Paulson's versatile mobile set pieces. He has assembled an exceptional ensemble, whose enthusiasm keeps the energy at a high pitch. China Brickey and Caitlynn Daniels are a riot as Oda Mae's assistants. At turns cheeky, exasperated, and flirtatious, McElrath's Oda Mae is a delight. McElrath has a leveling deadpan. And, oh yes, she can belt. Performing two big showtunes that Ghost gives to Oda Mae, McElrath brings down the house.
Frank Moran, though, is the real standout here. Sam is an altogether bland character, but Moran plays him with such subtlety and finesse that he comes off as remarkable. Moran has going for him an offbeat, down-to-earth charm and a gentle, beautifully controlled voice. However, it's the honesty he brings to the role that makes Sam appear to be something more than generic leading man. I always marvel at actors who can make stagey (or maudlin) lyrics sound emotionally authentic. Moran is the kind of performer who could wrest pathos from the Taco Bell theme song. Twin Cities musical theater-makers should take note. As Molly, Mollie Fischer has what is by far the most challenging role. Finding a way to make a character who spends three-fourths of the play in mourning interesting is no easy task. With her rich, throaty voice and large, expressive eyes, Fischer manages to be appealing and to hold the audience's attention throughout.
There is one additional, and easily fixable, technical problem that should be mentioned. That is the overzealous use of fog. Perhaps the Old Log stage has poor ventilation, but the stuff pours in thickly during the opening sequence and then just hangs there throughout the first act. And. except for the first two minutes, it ceases to make dramatic sense. Fog to simulate steam rising from a subway platform is one thing, but Molly and Sam's apartment is so thick with haze I found myself wondering where the fire was and why the smoke alarm didn't go off.
(SPOILER ALERT). The overall tone of the play lends itself to a mushy romantic ending, but since one of the romantic leads is dead from the third scene on, the play shifts to a religious resolution. For some reason, the shift seemed more dissonantand gratuitoushere than in the movie. Maybe it's the brightly lit twirling mobile screens that swing about Sam as he makes the journey. He moves through them as he gasps out platitudes until finally one of the screen passes in front of him andalakazam!he's gone. We see Molly smiling blissfully as Sam vanishes. Of course, she's happy for Sam, that he gets to go to heaven, but then, isn't this also a story about her? What's her resolution? Well, the good news, I guess, is that she does get to hold onto the fabulous Brooklyn apartment. And if we are talking Brooklyn Heights, she could do a lot worse.
If you need to take a break from the heavy theater fare, enjoy a little escapist fun in a beautiful setting at the beloved institution that is Old Log and see Ghost the Musical.
Ghost the Musical, based on the Paramount Pictures Film by Bruce Joel Rubin, book and lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin, music and lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glenn Ballard. Performing through September 23, 2017, at Old Log Theatre, 5185 Meadville St., Excelsior, MN 55331. For tickets and information go to www.oldlog.com or call (952) 474-5951.
Directed by Eric Morris