To those who appreciate the delicate scanscion of a great lyric or the subtle leitmotifs of composers like Stephen Sondheim or Michael John LaChiusa (without concessions for entertainment value given to maligners of the form), there’s little use braving the highly amplified, technically extravagant musical adaption of Ghost that made its West End debut last year and which has now made its way across the pond.
It’s a musical that paints in broad brushstrokes for sure. Taking its cue almost line-for-line from its source film, with several minor tweaks to account for the limitations of the stage (gone is the penultimate penny-under-the-door moment, for example), there isn’t much in the way of dramatic discovery or inventive storytelling.
Why, then, does Ghost, end up being so goddamn entertaining in spite of itself? The answer, in a name, is Matthew Warchus.
Warchus, known mainly for his direction of plays on Broadway — particularly Tony-winning productions of Boeing-Boeing, The Norman Conquests, and God of Carnage (for which he took home a Tony of his own) — has experience with large-scale musicals, most notably the Lord of the Rings musical in the West End and the RSC’s musical adaptation of Matilda, which is set to transfer stateside next season. With Ghost, he’s taken a familiar, often heartbreaking story and crafted a cinematically staged, commercially viable piece of theatre.
The central story is a clever piece of emotionally manipulative metaphysical plotting. Young lovers Sam Wheat and Molly Jensen are on the verge of marriage (if only Sam could say those three little words instead of “ditto”) when they take a wrong turn onto a deserted street and Sam is robbed at gunpoint, resists, and is consequently murdered. Sam, caught between worlds, finds that his spirit lingers on in an attempt to avenge his death.
With spectacular illusions by Paul Kieve, which include the famous walking-through-doors sequence, as well as some how-did-they-do-it body switches and realistically-designed subway scenes, the physical production is a wonder in and of itself. The show has a visual vocabulary unlike any show of recent seasons, with a particular emphasis on LED boards (video and projection design is by Jon Driscoll) that make up many of the shifting set pieces (fluidly designed by Rob Howell).
Everything about the production is masterfully paced by Warchus, choreographer Ashley Wallen, and Liam Steel, who provides additional movement sequences. If the dances in the piece too often strike a hokey tone (office workers dancing with suitcases, assorted city urchins breaking loose during set changes), it’s all in service of the show’s busy New York pallet, setting the stage for a story in which financial greed, in the case of our villain, Carl Bruner (Bryce Pinkham, appropriately sniveling), can lead a man to violent betrayal.
The show’s book is written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who also penned the movie’s screenplay (which accounts for the similarities). The score is by Eurythmics rocker Dave Stewart and pop songwriter Glen Ballard (with additional contributions from Rubin, whose screenplay provides a jumping-off point for many of the lyrics). Many of the songs are undistinguished (the bland “More,” with its chorus of “More and more and more and more,” the silly ballad “Life Turns on a Dime” for the character of Carl, and the handful of numbers for the ghosts), but there are a few standouts here.
“With You,” a lovely ballad for Molly to sing about her loss, takes the letter-writing scene of the film, in which she describes picking up Sam’s shirts at the cleaner’s, and turns it into a vocal showcase for Caissie Levy, who is stunning in the role. Also catchy are the first act finale, which juxtaposes Molly’s need to suspend her disbelief and Sam’s anger over how he’s been robbed of his former life, and the second act opener, in which Molly struggles with her gullibility at the hands of Oda Mae Brown, the psychic shyster portrayed on film by Whoopi Goldberg (and onstage by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whom Sam uses to communicate with Molly.
Then, of course, there’s “Unchained Melody,” which makes appearances twice in the show, as an acoustic guitar solo for Sam early on and, later, in a recreation of the infamous potter’s wheel sequence, during which the recorded track of the song delicately intermingles with the actors’ voices (in one of the show’s most tender, nostalgia-inducing moments).
As our central pair, Richard Fleeshman is hunky and likable as Sam Wheat, with an amiable voice. The real standout here is Caissie Levy, who is originating her first big Broadway role as Molly and who sings the shit out of the rangy score she’s charged with here. Da’Vine Joy Randolph makes the role of Oda Mae her own, keeping much of what made Whoopi stand out in the role (for which she won the Oscar) but adding her own saucy twist. She’s a particular riot during the penultimate bank forgery sequence.
There are some notable missteps here, particularly the cakewalk-shuffling stereotypical black ghost that meets Sam in the afterlife (a talented but misused Lance Roberts), and the mucky subway ghost sequence (performed with energy by Tyler McGee), but the show ultimately hits all the right cues from the movie and tugs at the heart strings in just the right places so as to satisfy on the whole, at the very least as a showcase for the immense talents of director Warchus and rising star Levy, who deserves a better show in which to shine but does well with what she’s got to work with here.