“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was haunting as a film in 1945 because it focused on the impossible love between the bitter, angry ghost of a sea captain and the widow who purchases his cottage. Every time writer-director James J. Mellon concentrates on this relationship, his world-premiere musical adaptation finds a safe dramatic harbor. The voyage is less steady when he emphasizes peripheral plots and keeps the vigorous figure of the captain offstage, particularly since James Barbour’s roaring approach to the role is the show’s most exciting ingredient.
Barbour appears so infrequently in act one that the production might well have been retitled “Mrs. Muir With Special Ghost Appearances.” Still, Lynne Wintersteller as Lucy (the Gene Tierney part) radiates class and charm doing one of Scott DeTurk and Bill Francoeur’s most lilting songs, “Vision,” and gives her character depth by suggesting loneliness and the past frustration of a loveless marriage. She also reacts with realistic shock to some of the production’s special effects: a chair racing rapidly across the floor, a book flying off a shelf.
Sound designers William Hutson and DeTurk establish the mood through creaking sounds, and Steven Young sets the theater strikingly ablaze with streaks of lightning. Most of these entertaining ghostly tricks come early, and the show would benefit if more of them were integrated throughout the story.
As in the movie, Mrs. Muir meets Daniel (Barbour) and discovers he wants her to purchase the cottage and eventually turn it into a home for retired sea captains. She resists being ordered around, and they squabble. Sparks don’t fly, however, since the two have minimal chemistry, and the tale digresses into pallid conversations with Lucy’s young children and conflicts with fussy, critical Eva (Kate Fuglei) and Helen (Harmony Goodman), her late husband’s sisters, who want to take Lucy’s son away and raise him. These two bossy biddies, amusing at first, are too non-threatening to make an impact and become caricatures that slow down the action.
Playing Lucy’s devoted servant Martha, Brooks Almy applies a brightly acerbic edge to Mellon’s wittiest lines, and Doug Carfrae excels as an opportunistic book publisher. But a major impediment to sustained suspense is the character of Miles (Kevin Bailey), a smooth, devious dilettante who attempts to seduce Lucy and nearly succeeds until she learns he’s married. This subplot sails in too early and is resolved by the conclusion of the first act, robbing the story of subsequent dramatic force.
Bailey is properly spirited in a rousing song, “She’s a Damn Fine Wench,” although his part is underwritten, and you can’t imagine why Lucy falls in love with him. The revelation of his marriage is sprung without sufficient logic, and Lucy’s pain doesn’t come across.
Blasting through thin segments about Lucy’s son, Cyril (Paul Denniston), who becomes a priggish priest, and daughter, Anna (Katharine McPhee), an aspiring actress, is the tall, towering captain. Paradoxically, the deceased Daniel is more of a flesh-and-blood personality than all the living people in the cast. Barbour performs “This House Is My House” with arrogant fervor and brings sincerity to sentimental ballads such as “I Will Always Be There.”
Barbour, aided by Ken Fix’s orchestration, has a tour de force with “Blood and Swash,” in which the captain recalls his lusty adventures at sea. The song is interrupted too frequently with talk and contributions by other characters, but Barbour nimbly responds to Mellon’s clever choreography and remains powerful enough to claim the number as his own.
Much misplaced bickering about whether Lucy actually wrote a bestselling manuscript mars the climax and needlessly delays the affecting moment when the captain promises Lucy eternal happiness and transforms the love story into something strong and affecting.