BWW Review: The New 'Chamber Musical' of GHOST is Nearly Awesome
GHOST was not only one of the most successful movies of its year, but of the 1990's. It was small, spare, and elegant, a bijou tale that was a bit of an inversion of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. People responded to that in a way they rarely respond to anything any more. The response to the Broadway musical of the film was far different. Although screenwriter/playwright Bruce Joel Rubin has said he loved the West End and Broadway effects, the electronica, both musical and visual, overwhelmed the story as well as the sound - one could barely make out the lyrics - and the stage (one could barely see the actors or the set for the projections and lighting over them). It was the opposite of the film - in a word, bloviated. This author considered the show and its national tour to be two-and-a-half-hour chunks of her life she would never get back; see HERE. Significantly, the musical's two major awards were for technical work, and not for performance, writing, or music - the set and lighting were all that could be distinguished by many people.
Thus it was, when multiple Jefferson Award and multiple Broadway World award winning director Marc Robin, formerly of Chicago and now Artistic Director of the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, told her that in late 2014 he had been asked by GHOST: THE MUSICAL's licensing agency, Theatrical Rights Worldwide, to devise a new, smaller-scale version of the musical, she wasn't sure whether to be relieved or to be frightened. Still, smaller seemed closer to the film, and thus a possible improvement. In January, 2015, when Robin presented a staged reading of the first draft of his rewrite, this author noted that it showed promise. It was, to be honest, a considerable improvement over the bloat of the original musical. But it was an early draft, and anything could happen.
On April 21, 2016, the Fulton Theatre premiered the official version of GHOST: THE MUSICAL's "chamber musical" version (a better identifier must be found), with revisions by Robin, by Bruce Joel Rubin, and, musically, by original writers Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard. As the "Molly" of the new version, Liz Shivener, described it, the production was not a musical but "a play with music," and the description is apt. The official reason for the revisions was that Theatrical Rights Worldwide couldn't sell GHOST to the average community or school theatre as the production was too technically laden, too complex, and too expensive to produce. The critic's reason for its needing to be revised? See this author's, and many others', comments on the Broadway production and the national tour; it was fairly universally reviled.
So the question is, is this new production of GHOST, the "chamber musical," any better than the original version? At intermission at the Fulton, after speaking with Rubin, Stewart, and Ballard, this author asked an audience member she knew had seen the original production how he felt about what he was seeing. The response: "I wish this was the version I'd seen last time. That was awful. Now, this is AWESOME."
Awesome? Not to put too fine a point on it... pretty much so. Better than the prior version? There is no comparison. This version is indeed a play with music, with a stripped-down set, a lack of expensively produced illusions, and an acoustic music pit. It is slight, spare, everything that the original musical production was not - and very close to everything that the original movie was. It is close, oh, so close, to elegant in its simplicity. In some ways, the basic story is so very simple that Robin's bare-stage staged reading in 2015 was more elegant in its storytelling, but you can't sell tickets to a musical without some razzle-dazzle on the stage these days; the era of the nearly bare stage for THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT, THE SMELL OF THE CROWD is no more, and the always-moving circus surrounding the stage of Paulus' PIPPIN is now with us, amusing those with short attention spans. The all-but-vacant stage of Sarah Ruhl's EURYDICE would suit the theme and the story remarkably, but that's a set for a completely non-musical play now.
Still, it's a sparse enough stage, all pseudo-exposed brick, a cityscape backdrop and a few steps, that with a few props and window treatments varies from Sam and Molly's loft to a subway to a psychic's shop to a bank. The set, designed by Robert Andrew Kovach, is intended to be replicated for other productions of the show, and plans are intended to be made available; it's a good thought to do just that.
And in regard to set and lighting, when Willie, Sam's killer, and Carl, the alleged friend and actual instigator of Sam's death, die, their being carted off to Hell is delightfully vivid on the new sets, with the newly designed and considerably tamed lighting by Paul Black. On the other hand, Hell seems to be incredibly flashy and sparkly, and rather more interesting a visual effect than going to Heaven, which is still a floodlit pool of white light. Should a place for two quite loathsome people be quite so attractive, more so than the allegedly preferable alternative Sam has?
But then there's the door. The cost and time of designing the Broadway door illusion for this show is legendary. In this production, a simple door frame houses a door that has the outline for glass panels, but no actual glass in it. The actors, using a simple technique called "acting" that requires only the expense of their prior training, behave as if the door is completely solid, except for Goodbrod, when, at the point that Sam's ghostly capabilities emerge, he uses this technique of "acting" to express his sudden ability to pass through the door. The possession of acting talent makes it possible for the audience to see that the door is solid when it isn't, except to Sam, who, being insubstantial, is able now to pass through it. If a certain degree of sarcasm is evident here, it's fully intended; this is what acting is intended to do, and is a prime example of the excess of the original production. No special effect is required for the audience to understand solid humans and doors versus ghostly intrusion through solid objects, yet overelaborate, over-expended detail consumed the Broadway production. One talented actor versus months of elaborate effect development that could barely be seen through the projections? Acting wins, easily.
The cast is stripped down to ten people, several of whom double in various parts in the ensemble, as the story is rightly back down to four: Sam, Molly, the odious Carl, and the dynamic comic relief of psychic Oda Mae Brown. With no excessive projection on top of the actors, and no major production numbers padding the stage and the time, everything here relies on the right cast. This is the right cast. Fulton veterans Gregg Goodbrod and Liz Shivener are Sam and Molly; besides being matched as a pair of fine voices, if a stage couple can indeed be said to have chemistry, the pair has it. There's an effortlessness to their stage couple that projects "long term relationship" like very little else. That Goodbrod, in broadly drawn terms, has a resemblance to the film's Patrick Swayze no doubt helps, but Shivener is the real find here; she's completely at ease not only with her Sam, but with the audience, and there's no doubt that she's communicating directly to each person in the seats. Goodbrod seems a bit overfocused on Molly, which is understandable for Sam, given his circumstances, but it's not always coming off the stage and into the audience.
Truth, though? The truth is that one person owns this show. That one person is E. Faye Butler, who plays Oda Mae Brown, schlock psychic and fake fortune teller, con artist card reader, alleged astrologer. Her delivery and comic timing (that latter honed perfectly on Broadway in VANYA, SONYA, MASHA & SPIKE) are impeccable, and she's big, brassy, sassy, and loud. Someone played the same character in the film, but who? It's hard to remember when Butler's playing Oda Mae. When you hear her sing, you'll know on the spot that she's also been Motormouth Maybelle in HAIRSPRAY (and if she broke into a chorus of "I Know Where I've Been" in the middle of her big scene in the second act, who could blame her?). Butler's presence dominates every scene she's in. She's totally marvelous. But, one must ask, is it the right amount of firepower, or is it overkill for the situation? One hates to see such a talent shrink back, but once Butler's Oda Mae is introduced, the desire to see her over-the-top performance again almost overshadows the rest of the play. (In this respect, Robin's staged reading felt slightly more balanced in terms of the character versus the rest of the show. In the national tour, the actor playing Oda Mae, Carla Stewart, was the only performer who was identifiable as a talent but that was partly because the other characters could barely be distinguished through the electronica.) This is not SISTER ACT; the Whoopi is not the lead here, but there are moments she feels like it.
Ballard and Stewart have altered the music, with some new songs added, as well as re-arrangement of prior songs by Robin and Rubin. The hospital ghost is without major music, "Ball of Wax" out; the subway ghost's number, "Focus," seems much improved. The orchestrations by David Abbinanti are pleasant and considerably more hummable on the way out the door than were the original ones. "You Gotta Let Go Now" and "I Can't Take It Any More" appear to be entirely new, as well as entirely fresh. Shivener's rendition of "Nothing Stops Another Day" sounds as if the song is, in the acoustic arrangement, worth recording; sufficient performance of the new production may render it a cabaret standard. There are, all in all, fewer songs, and the incidental and transitional music is greatly improved by the transformation to acoustic. Ballard and Stewart confirmed to this writer that the new version is far closer to their original thoughts about how the show should sound, and their instincts are, not surprisingly, excellent.
According to Theatrical Rights Worldwide, both versions of the musical, Broadway and "chamber" version, will be offered to theatres, but it is anticipated that theatres will prefer the smaller-scale version. Forget the costs, forget the stage size needed; they would be right to license the smaller version simply because it is a better show. As given to us at its premiere, it is not perfect. But it is very, very good - one might dare say "awesome" in comparison to the other. It is completely unlike the original musical but for some shared songs and a plot; it is very much the movie with some occasional, and naturally-situated, songs. It is always a tricky proposition to go from film to musical. The original version did not do it successfully because the need for presenting the bigger, bolder, and brassier that characterizes what sells a modern musical was the opposite of what the story required. This production is sparing in music as well as in set and in scope, as simple and as elemental as the original movie. Rubin has said that he'd like to see this version on Broadway.
Welcome to the dilemma of Broadway, Bruce Rubin: can a scaled-down musical production, lacking major production numbers, lacking effects, lacking lavish sets, lacking gimmickry, succeed on Broadway as a musical any more? How will it rake in tourist dollars when it's not a spectacle? The quality is greatly improved, but quality rarely bothers, or even interests, the tourist trade -- SPIDERMAN proved that, both in ticket sales and in inexplicable standing ovations. Nonetheless, at a small house like the Music Box, it would look properly sized and sound excellent. But it's better suited for an extended run at one of the smallish, more intimate Off-Broadway houses, and that without shame to the general excellence of the revised version.
At the Fulton Theatre, Lancaster, Pennsylvania until May 14, and thence to the opening of the season at Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, Maine. If you saw the previous version, this may heal some of your deep-seated trauma and cancel out those 150 minutes of your life that you lost to that production. With Robin at the helm of both the Pennsylvania and Maine productions, expect more possible tweaks by the end of the summer, but it seems to be in fairly sturdy finished shape at this point.
Visit thefulton.org for tickets and information. Just remember that this version may not yet be perfect, but it's still pretty "awesome".
Photo Credits: Kinectiv