BWW Reviews: GHOST THE MUSICAL Haunts the O.C.
Let's face it. The days of Broadway completely halting the practice of adapting movies into stage musicals isn't going away anytime soon. And why should it? With ready-made familiarity and (seemingly) less work involved to fashion a fresh story from scratch, your local cineplex---or, more accurately, your Netflix queue---will forever be Broadway's go-to bank vault for source material.
This year alone, audiences on and way, way off Broadway saw new stage iterations of such varying titles as Aladdin, The Bridges of Madison County, Hands On A Hardbody, Finding Neverland, and even Heathers. Soon, we'll see theater marquis lit up for adaptations of The First Wives Club, Honeymoon in Vegas, Ever After, Tuck Everlasting, Black Orpheus, The Nutty Professor, Mean Girls, and even---wow---Back to the Future (granted that last one, for me, sounds, um, insanely awesome!)
Tragically, for every major or medium success or even resounding critical acclaim, there is a staggering plethora of curious headscratchers that beg the question... Why adapt THIS for the stage, for goodness sake?!
Arguably the biggest challenge a stage adaptation must overcome is to make sure that it strikes a creative balance between creating a property that not only honors its origins (thereby pleasing its own established fan base) but also present a wholly fresh interpretation of a beloved property that can stand on its own merits.
On the surface, GHOST, that far-fetched yet gorgeously ultra-romantic film that starred Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg (in a role that won her an Oscar) seems poised to meet this challenge. I mean, it's truly a no brainer for adaptation: with a simple but clever storyline and a ubiquitous Righteous Brothers pop classic anchoring its soundtrack, the 1990 box office hit---which also earned five Oscar noms including Best Picture---appears to be every bit the perfect motion picture to be repurposed into a flashy stage musical.
Well, at least it should have been. While, sure, there's certainly a lot of flash to behold in this reinvention, many critical facets that made the film so endearing in the first place gets sadly lost in translation.
For all intents and purposes, the creatives behind the stage musical version of GHOST---which include book writer and lyricist Bruce Joel Rubin (who won an Oscar for his screenplay of the original film), and Grammy-winning superstar composers Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard---should at least be acknowledged for their valiant attempt in fashioning a modern-era rock-and-pop musical out of a sudsy, lovey-dovey supernatural flick.
What they ended up with instead, however, is a schizophrenic melange of random adult contemporary pop rock songs intermixed with an amped-up mystical mystery where the swoon-worthy aspects of the original gets diluted in favor of dazzling effects and abstract dance numbers. Plus, it also presents a forced romance between two characters that now feels like they shouldn't even be together.
As I watched the musical during its opening night performance at Segerstrom Center for the Arts (the show continues there through August 10), it seems clear that this stage adaptation's raison d'être is for it to show off its technical stage magic---a loud cacophony of lights, smoke, and animated projections. It's a dazzling display, no doubt about it... But it's an almost laughable obvious attempt to distract the audience from how intensely flawed this show really is.
Unfortunately, because it is indeed too focused on the visuals and their magic trickery of misty paranormal entities, a lot of the film's heart and soul gets trampled by the dizzying traffic of technological feats and the unnecessary---and sometimes, frankly, annoying---addition of extraneous motifs (i.e., the hustle and bustle of New York life, for one).
As a result, GHOST---as a stage musical---feels chaotic and murky.
Don't get me wrong. Though I was indeed wowed by the show's live, on-stage visual effects and impressively coordinated projections that created loft apartments, streets, investment offices, and moving subway trains from thin air (the "illusions" created by Paul Kieve and the lighting schemes designed by Hugh Vanstone and Joel Shier truly deserve cheers), much of the time while sitting through the show, I felt a bit frustrated that these well-crafted distractions highlighted how little romance is left in the finished product.
As a longtime fan of the Jerry Zucker-helmed film (I once spent a month's allowance to buy a used VHS rental copy of the film before it went on general sale), what I found most off-putting is just how much the stage show doesn't quite capture the original film's unabashedly ultra-romantic aura---the real reason many fell in love with the film in the first place. Here, the tragic love story of banker Sam Wheat (Steven Grant Douglas) and sculptor/artist Molly Jensen (Katie Postotnik) feels unusually watered down and somewhat artificial---making it very difficult to root for their relationship, let alone believe these two were meant for each other.
You would think that this changes in the show once Sam is murdered by petty thief Willie Lopez (Fernando Contreras) and decides to stay earth-bound in order to protect his beloved girlfriend. In the film, just looking at Swayze's and Moore's respective faces bathed by the emotions of two people yanked from each other's lives by tragedy is heartbreaking to watch. Here, Sam seems more passionately concerned for vengeance against his supposed best friend Carl (Robby Haltiwanger)---the guy who arranged for the ill-fated robbery that cost Sam his life---more than anything else. For her part, Molly---in this stage version---has, for me, become an unlikable character who acts more like a petulant child rather than a grieving lover.
This is truly puzzling since Rubin---who adapted the show's book from his very own Oscar-winning screenplay---pretty much kept the story intact, save for a few moments in the film that have been moved here rather than there (that infamous pottery wheel seduction scene has now been moved to much later in the story and---spoiler alert---is now between Molly and Sam's ghost). Somehow in its journey from the cinema to the stage, the romance in GHOST has become a footnote instead of being its main motivator.
The show's only real saving grace is the enjoyable character of Oda Mae Brown winningly played by Carla R. Stewart. The comical character she portrays retains much of the same charm from the movie (hallelujah!), with Stewart playing the role to deserved chuckles and applause (bonus cheers to Lydia Warr and Evette Marie White who offer support as Oda Mae's sisters/psychic assistants). As expected, she completely---and deservedly---steals the show and pretty much exposes how much GHOST spirals downward whenever she's NOT on stage. And when she finally utters her character's most quoted line from the movie ("Molly, you in danger, gurl"), the audience, of course, erupts.
Honestly, I would have much preferred a spin-off musical that focused on Oda Mae's fake/not fake abilities with ghosts instead of this chaotic stage adaptation. Now THAT would have been an awesome, original musical.
As reiterated by the show's obvious dependence on style over substance, much of GHOST - THE MUSICAL feels, overall, a bit hollow and empty. The songs sound like generic, passed-over songs from random pop acts belted like crazy to mask its meh-ness. It's really too bad, because the obvious vocal abilities of the cast seem lamentably wasted here. I'm just gonna say it: these guys deserve better.
But more than anything else, the biggest disappointment in the show is its thinned-out treatment of the romance that swept audiences away in its original celluloid format. Maybe expectations were set too high. Maybe it's just an unintentional side-effect of the show's need to wow us with its theatrical ghostly apparitions. Maybe the leads just lacked believable chemistry. Whatever the reason, a softie like me---who pretty much cries at the drop of a hat---just wasn't emotionally touched by what transpired in the stage show versus how I reacted to the film. That, for me, already speaks volumes.
I think it's ironic how the production---now at the tail end of its national tour---uses a still image of GHOST's lovers locked in a kiss projected on a scrim before the start of the show, during intermission, and when the show ends... because that's about the only place you'll get the biggest hint that GHOST, at one time, was all about love indefatigable even in death.
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Performances of GHOST - THE MUSICAL continues at Segerstrom Center for the Arts through Sunday, August 10. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.