Fidelity to the movie turns out to be the flaw of this pedestrian tuner.
There’s nothing insubstantial about the standout element of “Ghost.” It’s there for all to see in the dynamic versatility of Jon Driscoll’s terrific projections of everything from Manhattan cityscapes to a flatlining heartbeat to subway trains racing across the LED-screen walls of Rob Howell’s shape-shifting set. So much for physics. What the show lacks is chemistry.
The fault doesn’t lie with the leads. The suitably handsome Richard Fleeshman is hunky banker Sam who, on the brink of marrying artist Molly (emotionally available Caissie Levy), is suddenly and seemingly randomly murdered, only to discover himself in limbo. Only he — and the audience — can see that Molly is in mortal danger from their best friend Carl (Andrew Langtree), who looks like he’ll stop at nothing to follow through on a $10 million scam. Enlisting the help of crazy, dodgy medium Oda Mae Brown (Sharon D. Clarke), Sam comes to grips with his ghostly powers and sets about trying to save Molly and prove his love from beyond the grave.
From the doggedly faithful opening sequence of Sam and Molly moving into a trendy loft apartment, one thing is clear: Aside from cunningly effective ghostly apparitions courtesy of helmer Matthew Warchus (with illusions by Paul Kieve), fresh thoughts and surprises are in short supply. That’s largely because the tuner boasts a book by the movie’s screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, who cleaves not just to his original story arc but to almost every incident in his Oscar-winning screenplay. His fidelity turns out to be the flaw.
Stretches of dialogue also remain intact, patches of which become songs with pumped up soft-rock music by debuting tuner composer Dave Stewart (most famous for being one half of the wildly successful 80s U.K. band The Eurythmics). Glen Ballard and Rubin’s lyrics, however, feel like — and in some cases are — the original dialogue with added rhyming.
The results are colorless and predictable to the point of becoming pedestrian. When they’re not drawn from the script, they’re generic. Shortly before he’s killed, Sam duets with Molly in “Three Little Words”: “Doesn’t matter what they’re saying/ If words are all they are conveying.” Leaving aside the peculiar contradiction of belting his heart out about his inability to say “I love you,” the lack of individuality in the lyric makes the overblown emotions sentimental rather than sincerely affecting.
That song’s power-ballad tone is the style that predominates, with the whole cast seizing their opportunities to perform “American Idol”-style high emoting, albeit with impressive results.
The list of throbbing “I feel” songs seems unusually long, largely because the ensemble numbers are so weak. Aside from a couple of segments illustrating many busy people on the way to Sam’s office and two chorus numbers for collections of ghosts, the production never finds a galvanizing function for the chorus. The attitudinous choreography for the group numbers — stop-motion poses but no accelerating energy — falls flat, not least because the numbers have almost no emotional or dramatic function.
The exception is Oda Mae’s 11 o’clock number in which she fantasizes about spending $10 million. Having used no-nonsense sass to steal every scene she’s in, diva Clarke finally puts real heat into the show in her big number “I’m Outta Here” — though why a performer of such flashing-eyed menace is saddled with a pair of sunglasses for the number remains a mystery. Elsewhere, featured roles are reduced to one-note characterizations, such as the subway train ghost (Adebayo Bolaji) who is now a furious rapper too angry to be engaging.
Warchus’ well-drilled staging is supremely slick. He and the design team achieve real flow between multiple locations and the how-did-they-do-that? factor of the ghost effects are the show’s highs. But this is an evening of applauded effort rather than achievement.
The real question, though, is: Does Molly get her famous scene at the potter’s wheel? Yes, but it’s later in the action and, like much of the show, is robbed of the close-ups that would heighten its impact. But “Unchained Melody” is there, initially crooned sweetly by Fleeshman on a guitar. That transposition is the sort of imaginative change the show needs throughout. And when the sole pre-existing song is a tuner’s high point, it prompts a question that may come back to haunt the creative team: Why turn it into a musical in the first place?
Musical numbers: “Here Right Now,” “Unchained Melody,” “More,” “Three Little Words,” “Ball Of Wax,” “Are You A Believer?” “With You,” Suspend My Disbelief/I Had A Life,” “Rain/Hold On,” “Life Turns On A Dime,” “Focus,” “Talkin’ ‘Bout A Miracle,” “Nothing Stops Another Day,” “I’m Outta Here,” “Unchained Melody” (reprise)
Molly Jensen - Caissie Levy
Oda Mae Brown - Sharon D. Clarke
Carl Bruner - Andrew Langtree
Willie Lopez - Ivan De Freitas
Subway Ghost - Adebayo Bolaji
Hospital Ghost - Mark White