- OnStage Associate CT/ NY Critic
Immaterial, translucent, unsubstantial – adjectives that perfectly describe pop culture’s favorite pottery-throwing, hunky ghost. Unfortunately, these words of ethereality also describe the musical adaptation of Sam’s beloved story with disappointing accuracy.
Most ticket-buyers know the source material, of course: it’s your classic romance-meets-screwball-comedy-meets-action-finance-thriller. Ghost, the 1990 hit that turned pottery into erotica, tells the story of Sam, whose suspicious, sudden death traps him between the mortal and eternal worlds, sending him on a journey to protect his grieving girlfriend, Molly, with the help of a less-than-reputable medium. Everything that makes the film special – its charismatic romantic leads, the tonal juxtaposition between goofy ghost shenanigans and the pain of surviving loved ones, its quirky, distinctly ‘90s charm – is missing from the musical version.
White Plains Performing Arts Center’s production of Ghost: The Musical seems to recognize the flimsiness of this adaptation, and tries to enliven the story with a barrage of lighting effects and projections. The production’s instinct to distract from the plot is a fair one, as there isn’t much that sets the lackluster book and music apart from their source material: the dialogue and story are lifted virtually word-from-word from the screenplay (unsurprisingly, the financial subplot from the original film does not make for a riveting theatrical story), the lyrics are bland and clichéd, and the music rarely ventures from the realm of sleepy rock-inspired underscoring. Director Joseph C. Walsh had the obstacle of adding buoyancy to this disappointing adaptation, giving audiences a product that holds true to the spirit of the original through a new medium (pun intended). His approach to this challenge leans heavily on design, an obvious attempt to imbue the story with some spark of originality; the production’s design overload, however, doesn’t give a sense of theatrical magic so much as special effects, and only underscores how poorly this story translates to the stage.
The opening image, for instance, is a filmy, chalk-scribbled cityscape (one of the few interesting aesthetic choices made by set designer Ann Beyersdorfer and projection designer Ian McClain), which soon disappears to reveal a New York City represented by yet another cityscape, projections of skyscrapers, and stock exchange reels. The production is a jumble of rarely-subtle world-building choices, cramming the stage with light and sound and color, but never establishing a distinct sense of time or space. Design choices bounce from one aesthetic concept to another, with little thematic or narrative precision. The production doesn’t even seem sure of when it takes place; cellphones and computers are in use, but the story and overall aesthetic feel stalely 1990s. The bombardment of showy elements – from a 3-D projected subway car to sweeping lights to moving set pieces – are technically impressive. The sheer immensity of these choices, however, makes for a clunky trajectory, with awkwardly long blackouts between scene changes and a general lack of fluid storytelling.
The visual overload of the production is only rivaled by audio overload. On top of some obvious technical issues with the sound system, the orchestra frequently overpowers the performers. The score is relatively uninspired, but Walsh did it no justice by casting Natalie Weiss and Steven Grant Douglas in the romantic leading roles: both are much more comfortable singing pop than rock, and neither has the vocal stamina to pierce through the constant, heavy underscoring. Douglas’ performance is particularly distracting, as his interpretation of Sam verges on spiteful and mean-spirited rather than romance-averse. Even the ensemble seems confused, wandering unfocusedly in business attire and singing to whomever or whatever is most conveniently located.
The single exception to this less-than-energized performance trend comes from Ellisha Marie, who depicts the charlatan medium of Oda Mae with a refreshing enthusiasm and joy. She enters the story late, but revives the plodding narrative with more vocal aptitude and strength than any of her counterparts. Her performance is hardly original – it’s hard to interpret the role as anything beyond a Whoopi Goldberg impersonation, and the text relies heavily on dated racial stereotypes for laughs – but it is, at least, fun.
Ghost: The Musical may be a lost cause for any theatre. It’s a tough act to follow after the film, the book and music lack nuance and depth, and we’re all just there for the pottery scene anyway (which is, in this production, disappointingly rushed and lacking in the chemistry department). White Plains clearly threw time and money and effort into this production – far more than the creators did, I’m sure – but the result shows in the wrong way: it just looks like they’re trying too hard.
GHOST THE MUSICAL is Directed by Joseph C. Walsh with Musical Direction by Stephen Ferri and Choreography by Lexie Fennell Frare. Scenic Design by Ann Beyersdofer, Costume Design by Molly Seidel, Lighting Design by Matthew Guminski, Projection Design by Ian McClain, Stage Managed by Chris Luner. Book & Lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin, Music & Lyrics by Dave Stewart & Glen Ballard. Based on the Paramount Pictures film written by Bruce Joel Rubin. Original West End Production Produced by Colin Ingram, David Garfinkle, Adam Silberman, Land Line Productions, Donovan Mannato, Michael Edwards / Carole Winter. “Unchained Melody” written by Hy Zaret and Alex North, courtesy of Unchained Melody Publishing LLC.
GHOST THE MUSICAL will play the White Plains Performing Arts Center Thursday, October 19 2pm; Friday, October 20 8pm; Saturday, October 21 8pm; Sunday, October 22 2pm; Friday, October 27 8pm; Saturday, October 28 8pm; Sunday, October 29 2pm The White Plains Performing Arts Center is located on the third level of City Center off Mamaroneck Avenue in downtown White Plains, minutes from the White Plains Metro North Station. Tickets start at $33. For tickets visit the theatre box office Monday-Friday (11am-6pm), purchase the tickets online at wppac.com or call 914-328-1600. For Group Sales, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Kathleen Davisson