BWW Review: Breathtakingly Beautiful GHOST Opens MSMT's 2016 Season on an Unforgettable High
Maine State Music Theatre's 2016 opening brought the East Coast premiere of the stunning and soul-stirring new chamber version of Ghost The Musical, and the evening proved to be an extraordinary artistic event! Not only did this production represent an unique collaboration between director/choreographer Marc Robin and the musical's original creators, Bruce Joel Rubin, Glen Ballard, and Dave Stewart, but it offered Maine audiences the opportunity to savor the depth and range of this remarkable company's artistry. For the Ghost which was unveiled at Brunswick's Pickard Theater June 9 (a co-production of MSMT and Lancaster's Fulton Theatre) dazzles with the complexity of its score, the tenderness of its story, its symphonically perfect direction, splendid visual values, and by the deep identification of the cast with the material.
While many in the audience are familiar with the iconic 1990 Jerry Zucker film which starred Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, far fewer may remember the rather short-lived 2012 Broadway musical version, which overwhelmed itself in a high-tech extravaganza of a production that not only drowned the essence of the tale, but became virtually unproducible for smaller regional theatres. Some two years ago, award-winning director/choreographer Marc Robin was approached by Theatrical Rights Worldwide to collaborate with Ghost's original creators in developing a pared down chamber account of the show. Developed by Robin, the Fulton Theatre, MSMT and the show's original creative team, these artists reshaped Ghost into a ten-character, six-musician, cinematically haunting play with music that - in the words of one of its stars, E. Faye Butler - is "nothing short of miraculous."
Gone are the big production numbers and gratuitous dancing which interrupt the action - (though the choreographed fights are athletically thrilling); gone are the pyrotechnics and glitzy effects. What remains is streamlined, yet complex; trim, yet lush musically, visually and dramatically. The small pit orchestra, led by Music Director Jason Wetzel, plays David Abbinanti's new, complex orchestrations with nuanced skill giving an expansive, yet transparent feel to the soundscape. Ballard's vocal writing - which includes several new musical moments - is equally textured, as he pens heart wrenching ballads and intricate, tricky duets, trios, and ensembles. The signature "Unchained Melody," (Alex North/Hy Zaret) so famously associated with the movie, makes three touching appearances in this version - each time given a different dramatic purpose and shading.
So much of the credit for this successful reimagining must go to the genius of director/choreographer Marc Robin, whose taut, cinematic, finely calibrated staging takes your hand (and heart) and seesaws through a myriad of emotions and gripping dramatic situations. As always, Robin knows how to elicit from his actors performances of great intensity and genuine feeling. And in this play he balances perfectly the swings between tragedy and comic relief, never allowing the latter to cross the line into the grotesque. Most of all, he is able to find the meat of the narrative and the heart of the work and to allow these, together with a subtle evocation of our imaginations to create the magic of Ghost.
He is ably aided in this by the production's magnificent designers. Robert Andrew Kovach (with props by Katelin Walsko) creates an atmospheric set comprised of several lacey, assymetrical frameworks, bathed in soft, hazy color palettes, to suggest the New York City interiors and exteriors. Not only does this trim décor allow for seamless and rapid scene transitions, but it suggests both a structural lightness and substance that speaks to the intersection of dreams and reality. Lighting designer Paul Black's deft use of color, unusual angles, and spare but striking special effects, as well as Jacob Mishler's muted, mysteriously evocative sound design add an otherworldly dimension. Beth Dunkelberger's simple costumes echo the color choices of the décor and help define character in an attractive, understated manner.
The tightly-knit acting ensemble is magnificent throughout in a play that is surely both emotionally and physically draining. Gregg Goodbrod turns in an unsparing vocal and dramatic performance as Sam Wheat. Rarely offstage, called upon to find a new "physicality" as the ghost, he delivers a performance that is heart wrenching, tender, angry, funny, and ultimately completely uplifting. With a voice of great range and power, he fearlessly navigates the volcanic emotions of his character, managing to combine a quiet interiority with a riveting passion. Liz Shivener brings a radiance, fragility, and vulnerability to Molly Jensen, and she, too, finds a level of truth that is memorable. Possessed of a beautiful, emotive voice, she soars in poignant ballads like "With You" and "Nothing Stops Another Day."
As Oda Mae Brown, E. Faye Butler works her own special brand of monumental magic. Her portrait of the boisterous con artist turned genuine spiritual medium is entirely her own: hilarious, yet touching, brassy, yet warm - and always supremely human. Her flawless comic timing and sense of perfect proportion make for needed comic relief while never derailing the essential story, and her single solo number, "I'm Outta Here" allows her to open up and demonstrate her powerful musical theatre gifts. Mike Backes portrays a slippery, duplicitous Carl Bruner, who inches toward his own undoing and terrifying end. Vocally, he provides a fine counterpoint to Goodbrod and Shivener and their trio "Life Turns on a Dime" is a highlight.
The small supporting cast, each of whom assumes multiple characters with chameleon aplomb, features, Ceasar F. Barajas as a seedy, menacing Willie Lopez; Kyle E. Baird as a rapping subway ghost; Billy Clark Taylor as a cynical hospital ghost; Janelle McDermoth and Linnaia McKenzie as Oda Mae's sisters, and Jessica Lorion as a gullible Mrs. Santiago.
For MSMT and the Fulton Theatre, this co-production of Ghost The Musical represents a major accomplishment and another high note in a long string of successes. The production which the two theatres have put together is an entirely new work and one worthy to grace any stage from the far corners of the country to Broadway and beyond. One can only wish that this chamber version of Ghost will go forward to find a renewed lease on life, thanks to the creative artists who have all reimagined it so powerfully. To sit in the Pickard Theatre for two performances and watch the audience - for the most part unfamiliar with the musical, but yet completely transfixed - share the supreme compliment of a suspended moment of silence at the end of the performance, before, almost as one, they rose to their feet in tumultuous applause, speaks volumes about the Fulton's and MSMT's artistic excellence, the vision of MSMT's current leadership (Curt Dale Clark and Stephanie Dupal), and the trust they have been able to build with their public as they go on to present theatre that challenges as well as entertains.
Masterfully staged, brilliantly conceived and created, this Ghost offers a theatrical experience not to be missed! There will be moments when it rips your heart out, but then it will turn and hand it back to you, brimming with the gift of an inextinguishable love.
Photos courtesy MSMT and Fulton Theatre, Kinectiv, photographer
Ghost The Musical runs from June 8-June 25, 2016, at MSMT's Pickard Theatre, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME 207-725-8769 www.msmt.org