Friday, January 31, 2014
Theater review: Ghost: The Musical tugs at the heart strings with emotion and special effects
The lead characters do Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg justice.
FAIR PARK Ghost: The Musical is yet another title added to the ever-growing list of musicals that pop up each season using celluloid as its source of material. It is based on the 1990 cult classic film that made pottery making go from an arts & crafts project into erotic sensuality.
The film version has Molly (Demi Moore) and her ability to drop tears at the perfect moment, the late Sam (Patrick Swayze) becoming a ghost who discovers he was murdered by his best friend Carl (Tony Goldwyn), and Whoopi Goldberg stealing the film as Oda Mae Brown, a psychic who can hear Sam. He forces Oda Mae to warn Molly that Carl was behind his murder. Goldberg has the delicious treat to utter the classic line, “I tell it in my own way. Molly ... Girl, you in danger!”
This romantic film became a monster box office hit, earning five Oscar nominations, winning "Best Original Screenplay," and Goldberg "Best Supporting Actress." She made Oscar history that night by becoming the second African American actress to win an acting Academy award (Hattie McDaniel was the first for Gone With the Wind in 1939). If you’re a fan of ABC’s Scandal, you can see Goldwyn portray the sexy President of the United States who is having an affair! As for Moore, well, she became Hollywood’s premier cougar with her marriage to Ashton Kutcher. Sadly Swayze passed away in 2009.
The musical version had its birth across the pond in England in 2011. After a three-month tryout in Manchester, it opened in the West End in June 2011 receiving mixed critical response. It would last 500 performances.
For Broadway, the musical landed at the Lunt-Fontaine Theatre, opening in April 2012, bringing its two original leads from the West End version. The Broadway production had some songs replaced, such as “Ball of Wax” becoming “You Gotta Let Go,” and both the book and characters were retooled. As it had happened with the West End production, the Broadway version was met with mixed reviews. It did receive three Tony nominations. Alas it would only run for 136 performances. But the musical did garner a cult status with fans who loved the show so much they went on Broadway blogs and theater social media expressing their love, support and passion for this musical.
Now the national tour has brought apparitions, romance and a pottery wheel to the Music Hall where it began its Dallas run Tuesday evening.
As it has now become a common theme, the tour version too was tweaked and changed from the original Broadway production. The overture has been cut from the tour. A song titled “Sam’s Murder” has been switched to “Sam’s Lament.” Also the tour creators dropped the hospital ghost character altogether and the song this character sang, “Talkin’ Bout a Miracle,” is sung by the ensemble. Sam’s song “I Can’t Breathe” was altered to include lyrics from the very famous song used in the film, “Unchained Melody.” That’s the song with Sam and Molly at the pottery wheel.
Having seen so many musicals that have transformed from the silver screen to the stage boards, some have succeeded while others collapse creatively and artistically. The flops tend to have two central themes as to why it didn’t work: it just didn’t match the emotion of what was on screen, or the original score didn’t elevate the characters or storyline. What the few successes from this genre of musical had that worked is they magically brought the emotion from celluloid onto the stage boards, covered in a glorious musical score. So how did Ghost: The Musical do? Grab a mason jar of pennies and let’s see!
In a very rare feat, the original film screenwriter also created the book for the musical. For Ghost, Bruce Joel Rubin has taken his Oscar-winning screenplay and planted it on the stage. The main central plots of the film are in the book with some minor alterations. The infamous pottery scene is now set much later in the musical. Also, instead of the penny moving up the wall by Sam to prove to Molly he is there, it is a letter she wrote in Act One. This actually makes sense as it would be too difficult for the audience to see a tiny penny crawl up a wall on a massive stage. But the major emotional core of the film has transformed quite beautifully into Rubin’s book. It’s simple and to the point, as it was with his screenplay.
If you are a fan of the pop duo sensation, The Eurythmics, then Dave Stewart should automatically ring a bell! With the iconic Annie Lennox, this duo created some of the biggest pop hits of the '80s. Stewart also produced and co-wrote songs with such artists as Tom Petty, Bono, Jon Bon Jovi and Katy Perry. This Grammy and Golden Globe winner has now composed his first musical theater score with Ghost. He co-wrote both the score and lyrics with Glen Ballard, who is a six-time Grammy Award winner who has worked with such mega stars as Michael Jackson and Christina Aguilera.
The score for Ghost is actually quite powerful, melodic, and gels extremely well within the book. You do hear the slight, familiarity of Eurythmics techno musicality in some songs, such as “More” and “Rain/Hold On.” The majority of the score is bold, dynamic, and several songs really do stay with you after the curtain call. The ballads are my favorite pieces within the score, including “Sam’s Lament,” “With You,” “Rain/Hold On,” “Three Little Words,” and, my personal favorite, “Suspend My Disbelief/I Had a Life.” The melodies transform into ethereal, soothing, romantic, haunting compositions. These ballads really bring out the characters motivation of loss love, death, loneliness, desperation, and emptiness.
There are some up-tempo songs, which for the most part work perfectly in regards to the character of Oda Mae. She had “Are You a Believer?” and “I’m Outta Here” that were successful music compositions. There are a couple of numbers that did seem out of sync and didn’t connect well with the rest of the score, such as “You Gotta Let Go,” sung in the hospital by the ghosts. The number starts off great with terrific singing, but then it goes from pop to this bizarre vaudeville transition that seems clunky and unbalanced. Another failure was the song “Focus” which is rapped by the Subway Ghost. It doesn’t sound or have the beats of rap music. It went all over the place, sounding as though the singer was behind or ahead of the beat. But overall the score does achieve exquisitely the love and romance that was on the silver screen.
Both the reviews for the West End and Broadway productions raved about the special effects, video projections, lighting and illusions that were created for this musical. So I was very worried how much the tour would cut, change or alter those elements. I was completely blown away that very little was cut. The majority of the visual feast the Broadway audiences got, the tour’s audiences will also receive.
There are some technical elements cut, such as the ramps and moving runway conveyor belts that the cast and set pieces glided on stage. Another alteration was that for Oda Mae’s second number the luggage moved on its own (the cast moves it but it wasn’t distracting at all). The subway scene and the second act scene with the Subway Ghost also had a bit more technical bells and whistles than the current tour does. But the majority of the technical marvels are there on the tour’s stage.
This synthesis of lighting design by Hugh Vanstone, lighting design recreation by Joel Shier, video and projection design by Jon Driscoll, sound design by Bobby Aitken and Garth Helm, and illusions by Paul Kieve is a smorgasbord of jaw-dropping masterpieces of technical wizardry and magic that will leave you gasping and hypnotized!
I was seated four rows from the stage and I could not see strings or anything on how all these feats are executed. The scene where Sam walks through the door or how the piece of paper Molly is holding folds up on its own is AMAZING! The transformations from a living Sam to the ghost Sam, the deaths of some characters, and the second act duet, slow dance by Sam and Molly, or the subway scenes; all you can say is, “OMG! How on earth did they do that?!” There is a plethora of incredible special effects occurring all evening long. The lighting design and video projections are magnificent, and the sound effects are so perfect for the actions of the ghosts. I will not ruin the never ending surprises and magic that this awe inspiring that this design team achieved. It’s best you see it for yourself and be as surprised and amazed as I was.
I must applaud the work of choreographer Ashley Wallen. The choreography has undercurrents of modern, contemporary, and hip-hop. Some dance sequences remind me of Twyla Tharp’s work. Several numbers have visually fascinating dancing, such as “More” and “Rain/Move on.” This choreography has sequences of isolation and contractions the ensemble creates with their bodies that really are visually exciting to observe.
The ensemble deserves kudos of praise for their hard work in this production. They portray an array of characters throughout the musical, from ghosts to New Yorkers. I wish they had more full-ensemble numbers in which to perform within the score. But their execution of the choreography and their backup vocals for several numbers show how vastly talented they all are.
Within the supporting performances, stealing several scenes are Evette Marie White and Nichole Turner as Oda Mae’s psychic scheming partners, Clara and Louise. These two gals are hysterical in supplying physical comedy and facial expressions that had the audience in loud waves of laughter. Just watch what they do with the number “Are You a Believer.” These two talented actresses are fierce in their comedic skills.
Brandon Curry portrays the Subway Ghost. Now, in the film the role is a bit crazy and missing a few sandwiches in his basket. But Curry goes way too over-the-top for the role here. He gives the role so much anger. Granted, we as the audience are only given one piece of information regarding his character, which is he was pushed into the subway which killed him. But why? And is that the sole reason for all those histrionics? It didn’t help that it is extremely difficult to understand Mr. Curry. His diction is very mushy and he rushes his lines, both in book scenes and lyrics. I had no earthly idea what he was saying 99 percent of the time. I get that this is the character that teaches Sam the ability to move things, but you could actually cut the role altogether and let Sam discover these powers on his own (would have made for a great up-tempo pop/rock solo). Sadly Curry just doesn’t gel into the characterization.
Robby Haltiwanger gives a solid performance as Carl Bruner, Sam’s best friend who turns out to be the one who gets him killed. I am very impressed that Haltiwanger goes down the same artistic route as Tony Goldwyn did in the film version of the same role, which is to not be so obvious as the villain. Haltiwanger gives the role just the right tones of actually being a good friend to Sam. He does show, by way of honest facial expressions, his quiet jealousy of Sam having such a great girlfriend. It’s not overly done, but subtle. He travels through his characterization with authentic subtext and organic reality. I feel, though, that the creators drop the ball by not giving Carl his own true solo number. If Carl had a ballad in the show that truly expressed his sincere feelings for Molly, wow, think of the subtext and exciting conflicts that would have created for the horror of violence towards the end of Act Two? Nonetheless, Haltiwanger provides a standout performance.
Whoopi Goldberg really stamped her mark on the character with her performance as Oda Mae Brown. She did the same with Deloris Wilson in Sister Act. Both roles had Goldberg’s gut-busting comedic delivery and panache. For the stage version, Carla R. Stewart has the difficult cast of making the audience forget Goldberg’s work. She does succeed in some ways, but at other times just doesn’t get the laughs the role demands. Don’t get me wrong, she is very funny. But you get the sense there is more within the comedy that Stewart doesn’t catch, explore, or expand. She too has a slight diction issue. Some of her book scenes suffer due to the rushing of lines and, at times, a soft whisper delivery. She is quite comical when a ghost enters her body, but you get this nagging feeling that there could have been so much more laughter achieved had she worked more on the comedic subtext, timing, delivery, and physical execution. Stewart does hit the comedic jackpot in the bank scene as Rita Miller. That’s when Stewart really displays her comedic chops, resulting in hilarious laughter.
She has the best up-tempo show stopper number as well, titled “I’m Outta Here.” Here, she imagines all the things she will do with the ten million dollars she just got. The ensemble serves as her army of bodyguards and personal assistants. On Broadway, they were dressed in powder blue, crushed velvet jackets; for the tour they are in solid black-sequined jackets. Enveloped in a massive, billowing fur wrap, sprinkled with rhinestones, Stewart has delicious, comedic fun with the lyrics. Her energy and comedic pizzazz gives the number stellar success. I love how the cast moves an array of Louis Vuitton luggage in various sizes all over the stage. The luggage creates an endless display of steps, platforms and patterns for Stewart and the cast to dance and sing on or around. While Stewart does have a few minor hiccups in her performance, she still is a major crowd pleaser with her talents as Ode Mae.
What puts this musical in my mental file as a critical smash is because of the performances provided by Steven Grant Douglas as Sam Wheat and Katie Postotnik as Molly Jenson. The show will not work whatsoever if these two characters do not have the same, erotic, sensual chemistry as Moore and Swayze did in the film version. Period. Douglas and Postotnik burn the stage with their very sexy and erotic chemistry that almost caused the fire alarm to go off in The Music Hall. Douglas is a very tall, athletic, good looking man, while Postotnik is shorter but has this incredibly beautiful face framed with cascading, dark, golden-hued hair. Both actors have soft, alluring eyes that show so much emotion and connection between them. Their first love-making scene (which is tasteful, yet very hot in its staging) is aided with a gorgeous, black and white video image of their bodies intertwining. I very strongly feel that if Douglas and Postotnik did not have chemistry, it would have shown, resulting in the audience not believing them and the show tanking. But boy, do they have chemistry!!
It is a herculean task to do a modern musical with so much romance and dramatic overtones in big theaters. You can’t overdo it so that the back of the house can see, feel, or hear you. You have to be truthful, honest, and natural. Douglas and Postotnik are VERY aware of this. They approach their characterizations and the arcs that they must crest on with emotion and compelling, potent naturalism. Their subtext is dynamic and ensconced with organic truth. You deeply feel their vulnerability, love and loss in every scene.
Finally, there are the vocals provided by these two. Douglas and Postotnik both possess out of this world singing voices! They also have the best songs within the score. Their vocals have pop/rock overtones, and the power ballads require both to sustain long notes that crescendo into a big belt. Douglas in particular has several songs that require him to do just that, and he achieves magnificent success with that tenor voice.
Some personal highlights from these two include “Unchained Melody” (Douglas covers this iconic song with honey-layered tenor vocals and a glistening falsetto), “Three Little Words” (a lush ballad sung by both), “Sam’s Lament” (a grand epic rock song that Douglas goes full out vocally), “With You” (a ballad that Postotnik sings with superlative results), and finally the phenomenal ballads, “Suspend My Disbelief/I Had a Life” and “Rain/Hold On.” In those two ballads Douglas and Postotnik have to belt and blend their singing throughout both compositions. The songs require them to build and build, both emotionally and vocally, as the songs progress. They each achieve peerless success with those two big power ballads.
Douglas and Postotnik carry the show with tour de force performances that will sincerely move you. The final scene had several in the audience, including myself, in tears. Mr. Douglas and Ms. Postotnik both give the audience sensational, unparalleled performances that will fill your heart, and whose talents stay with you way past the curtain call.
I’m sure the bitter cynics and snooty, nose in the air artistic types will find this musical too sentimental or not “artsy” or ground breaking. Well, it’s not supposed to do that. It’s about letting go of someone you so deeply love. Sure, it can get a little schmaltzy at times. There are some glaring problems in the book, lyrics, and a couple of the songs. But the majority of the piece does achieve stellar artistic success. You have to go with an open heart and just let the romance soak in.
There is a potpourri of out of this world special effects and technical design within this musical that will blow your mind BIG TIME!!! But when the curtain comes down, it is the spectacular work provided by Douglas and Postotnik that shines and stands out way beyond all that technical and magical wizardry, and stays in your mind ... and in your heart.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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