Washington Post: Broadway musical of ‘Ghost’ is inventively fun with eye-poppingly brilliant effects
NEW YORK — The musical based on the film “Ghost” that just opened on Broadway is said to have originated in London. But it seems to have come from somewhere else: the future.
It starts like a movie with a sweeping tracking shot of Manhattan skyscrapers projected onto a scrim. It has slow-mo fights in subway cars that look like a video game and the back wall explodes throughout the show with dancing digital figures and words. There are even magic tricks. It’s the slickest, most visually appealing musical since the one about a spider dude.
The song being performed at the time? Alas, “Nothing Stops Another Day.”
Though producers say such a delay is unprecedented, it was almost welcome to see such a hiccup, so overproduced and complicated is this work. That’s not necessarily a knock on an inventive show, just nice to see a ghost in the machine.
It’s all led by talented director Matthew Warchus (who may have saved up his special effects hunger from helming the minimal “God of Carnage”) and has a new and pretty score by Dave Stewart (half of the Eurythmics) and Glen Ballard (producer of Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill.”)
It is Ballard and Stewart’s first musical stage score, but it doesn’t sound it at all. The songs keep the story moving and reveal character motives and mix up styles nicely. Some of the songs are so glorious — “Here Right Now” and “Suspend My Disbelief/I Had a Life” — they may win you over by the time the pottery wheel comes out in Act 2.
They’ve also smartly dealt with “Unchained Melody,” The Righteous Brothers’ recording that was at the core of the film. The composers have rightly embraced it, but in clever snatches: A Spanish version plays in one scene, there’s a jokey acoustic version played by one of the characters in another, and a few bars of the original are later heard on a radio.
The book by Bruce Joel Rubin stays close to the 1990 film and for good reason: Rubin wrote the film’s screenplay, too. In the monster movie hit, Patrick Swayze played a ghost trying to communicate with his girlfriend — played by Demi Moore — through a fake psychic — played by Whoopi Goldberg — in hopes of saving her from his murderer. (The musical marks the second show currently on Broadway with a part originated by Goldberg, which begs the question: When will “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” get here?)
In the new musical, Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy make convincing young lovers Sam and Molly, though the muscular Fleeshman should be told that screaming his lines as a ghost is, um, overkill. Maybe he’s angry because a blue light is always shining in his face now that’s he’s dead. Levy is thoroughly convincing as a heartbroken woman and her “With Me” is achingly lovely.
Choreography by Ashley Wallen emphasizes jerky moves with sudden stops in mid-stride to echo our nonstop, frazzled modern lives. There’s plenty of use of the stage’s mechanical walkways; huge sets slide in and out and fire escapes fly up and down. There’s also plenty of smoke. Unfortunately, though, some of the creative team has clearly watched “City of Angels” way too much.
Jon Driscoll has gone into overdrive with projections — there’s great snow and rain, crystal-clear cityscapes and stock tickers, and he’s also paired real dancers with digital ones that resemble those figures who slink around in the opening sequence of James Bond films.
It all comes together — computers, dancers, projections and illusions by Paul Kieve — thrillingly in two subway scenes between Sam and a subterranean ghost, who later turns out to be an angry deranged rapper in the mold of Eminem. Those sequences are eye-poppingly brilliant.
There are also smartly imagined moments whenever new ghosts are made that include mannequins, misdirection and lots of bright lights like fireflies. The way bad guys get sucked into hell right after they’re killed seems awful and scary, but the visual trickery is astonishing. Sam and Molly’s final dance — thanks to Oda Mae — is nicely done and a low-tech welcome after all the neon and hydraulics.
Sam’s final, drawn-out goodbye ignited clapping for its visual beauty — going to heaven looks really, really cool even if the dialogue (”See ya” and “Bye”) is somewhat lacking.
But there are some clear missteps, notably the character of the hospital ghost who greets the dead Sam right after his murder. The ghost, which has been reworked since London, still isn’t right, an odd combination of vaudeville and soul that doesn’t fit this shocking moment.
Overall, it’s an ambitious, carefully orchestrated work that raises the bar on technological innovation. In London, “Ghost The Musical” has become a hit. How will a Broadway audience likely respond? Ditto.
Talkin Broadway: Molly's moving-on solo Nothing Stops Another Day are powerful, honest-to-goodness theatre compositions
Go ahead, take your best shot. Wispy. Vaporous. A shadow of its former self. Try as you might, you won’t convince someone who’s positive he or she has had an encounter with the spirit world that it didn’t happen. Someone compelled to believe will believe, no matter what. Keep that in mind as I freely and publicly admit this: I believe in Ghost.
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.
The same is true of the “illusions,” which have been designed with eye-popping gilt by Paul Kieve. When folks die, as they do frequently, their shades rise from the darkness and leave their physical forms behind. Sam’s killer (Michael Balderrama) and the one who’s stealing millions of dollars from Sam’s firm are tormented by flying objects and self-moving set pieces. (A subway specter who instructs Sam in the finer points of interacting with physical objects, played by Tyler McGee, wields similar powers.) And, in the two most astonishing feats, Sam literally walks through a door and later into a star-filled eternity. In every case, almost exactly what you saw onscreen — a technically amazing, if creatively bereft, feat.
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.
The score does more than just not hurt in this regard; it reinforces every point along the way. Yes, yes, Alex North and Hy Zaret’s “Unchained Melody” is here. But the yearning music and seldom-overstated lyrics fittingly underscore the casual intensity of Molly and Sam’s relationship. Most of the songs are gently touching, and some dig deeper still (“Three Little Words,” about everything they can’t say to each other”; “With You,” when the reality of Sam’s demise finally hits Molly). But the exciting and epic (nine-minute) trio for them and Carl that closes Act I and Molly’s moving-on solo “Nothing Stops Another Day” are powerful, honest-to-goodness theatre compositions. And good luck getting Carl’s driving “More” out of your head. Only Oda May’s numbers, the gospel-tinged “Are You a Believer?” and the paean to materialism “I’m Outta Here,” are too clunkily corporeal.
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.
The Faster Times: - Ghost the Musical is a literally spectacular stage show
Ghost grossed half a billion dollars and won an Academy Award for Whoopi Goldberg and for its screenplay, so perhaps it was inevitable the 1990 film would eventually be made into a musical. What was not inevitable is how spectacular Ghost the Musical is.
Ghost the Musical, a British import, is spectacular not because of the music, although the original score offers a range of serviceable pop melodies (from rock ballads to blues, soul and gospel) by two songwriters who know what they’re doing; one created hits for Michael Jackson and Alanis Morissette, the other, Dave Stewart, paired with Annie Lennox as The Eurythmics. It also isn’t spectacular because of the dancing. It isn’t even the performers.
Lord knows, it’s not because of its plot. In writing the book of the musical, Ghost screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin faithfully follows his movie scene by scene, with its uneasy marriage of romance, science fiction, comedy and crime thriller: Sam is unable to say he loves Molly until he is killed in what at first seems like a random mugging; he returns as a ghost and employs con artist psychic Oda Mae Brown to help him communicate with Molly and bring the killer to justice. Despite its Oscar and its blockbuster success, the film remains memorable only for Whoopi’s moments of frantic clowning, and for the scene — with “Unchained Melody” playing in the background (“Oh my love, my darling….I need your love/God speed your love to me”) — where lovers Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore sensually embrace each other while fondling the oozing clay at the pottery wheel.
That scene is replicated in Ghost The Musical, but it is something of a disappointment. How could it be otherwise? It is too familiar — in the running for the most parodied scene in the history of Hollywood.
Still, Ghost the Musical is a literally spectacular stage show. It makes better use of video projections than any previous show on Broadway. Even before the curtain rises, you suddenly notice something odd about the night-time scene of New York that seems painted on it; the water in the harbor is gently rippling. Once the show begins, we are taken on a vertiginous joyride, flying in the air between the skyscrapers, touring ground-level through various New York neighborhoods, passing underground between dangerously speeding subway cars. We even travel close-up between the lovers’ bodies!
No other current Broadway show – and, I would wager, no Broadway show ever – has had an illusionist as part of the design team, certainly not an illusionist as illustrious: Paul Kieve taught magic to Daniel Radcliffe and served as a magic consultant on a Harry Potter film. The special effects we long have taken for granted in the movies have now come to a Broadway stage. Sam leaves his body as a ghost right before our eyes, with both the lifeless body and the blue-tinted ghost then occupying the stage simultaneously. Sam walks through walls, he leaps into trains, he even ascends to the heavens; the bad guys are taken down to the netherworld by little red meanies.
Even when we are just visiting the former Wall Street offices of Sam the dead banker, the set is so awash in LED displays of stock-market numbers – blue ones flashing by horizontally, then red ones dripping down vertically – that it evoked for me the cutting-edge stagecraft of Enron. In case you suspect the analogy some kind of snarky comment, since that show bombed in New York: I considered Enron a kind of high-tech, multimedia performance art. Its design struck me as a glimpse into the future of theater; judging from “Ghost,” I was right.
Not every effect in ‘Ghost” is, well, effective, and there are drawbacks to relying so heavily on state-of-the-art technology. The performance I attended was halted for 20 minutes while they fixed a malfunction in the set.
But this is not a replay of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, not the least because nobody has been reported hurt. The bells and whistles are also better integrated into the story, and the story focuses on the romance. There is even some real humor, thanks to newcomer Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the helpful psychic. Randolph also supplies “Ghost” with its irrefutable show-stopping numbers, “Talkin About A Miracle and “I’m Outta Here.”
The performers may not be the primary reason to see this show, but they are certainly not a reason to stay away. Both hunky Richard Fleeshman, making his Broadway debut, and Caissie Levy, who’s been in Hairspray and Wicked and played Sheila in the recent revival of Hair, are appealing performers with strong voices. Near the beginning, Fleeshman picks up a guitar to serenade Levy with “Unchained Melody,” and I thought I detected a few swoons in the auditorium. When the two of them have a ghostly duet with the help of Randolph as Oda Mae, it is a magical moment in more than one way.
The fourth lead, Bryce Pinkham, who was magnificent in the Orphans Home Cycle and Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, here has the thankless role of Carl Bruner, the evil best friend, and does what he can.
But, yes, the true stars of “Ghost Musical” are illusionist Paul Kieve along with projection designer Jon Driscoll, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, and set and costume designer Rob Howell who have put together a visual spectacle on Broadway unprecedented in its technical artistry.
Director Matthew Warchus, whose previous directorial efforts on Broadway have tilted toward sophisticated comedies, the Broadway equivalent of art house movies — Art, God of Carnage, The Norman Conquest – is here trying something new. I’m not sure he is presiding over the Broadway equivalent of a date movie; it seems closer to the Broadway equivalent of a theme park ride. That’s not a put-down. The best rides are exhilarating.