BWW Reviews: Asia Pacific Premiere of GHOST: The Musical

By Rocky Christopher Fajardo

Manila, Philippines--The stage of the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at RCBC Plaza turns into a furtive arena for a courageous theatrical exploit in the Asia Pacific premiere of GHOST: The Musical, staged by Atlantis Productions and Ten Bridges Media Corporation.

With book by Bruce Joel Rubin, music and lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, and musical direction by Ceejay Javier, under the direction of Bobby Garcia, GHOST--the stage incarnation of the 1990 blockbuster film of the same name, featuring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Academy Award winner Whoopi Goldberg--centers on Sam Wheat and Molly Jensen, and how their love defies the fantastic limits between the living and the supernatural.

Set in modern-day New York, the show opens with an over-the-top rock overture sending out a subliminal warning to brace oneself for flamboyant stage entrances of the show's principal characters; but the first opening bars of the overture turn out to be merely anti-climactic: The curtains open to no pomp or splendor accompanying a full cast on stage, but with the dewy-eyed couple Sam and Molly--played by Christian Bautista (Cinderella, West Side Story) and Cris Villonco (The Sound of Music, Jekyll and Hyde), respectively--lugging their chic belongings as they move into a posh New York flat, with the help of Sam's best friend and fellow bank executive Carl Bruner, played by Hans Eckstein (Piaf, Rock of Ages).

Caught within the throes of a sinister web of deceit and betrayal spawned by Carl, Sam meets his untimely death in the hands of a henchman hired to steal crucial bank information needed to funnel funds into a secret bank account. After Sam's murder, his ghost lingers, eventually setting off a train of events that brings danger to Molly, while dragging along in its wake, the exuberant psychic Oda Mae Brown, played by Ima Castro (Miss Saigon, Aida).

Cris Villonco plays Molly; Christian Bautista Sam.

Bautista's probe into the supernatural psyche of the murdered Sam leaves certain gray areas that need further meticulous attention, specifically that which involves a full spectrum exploration of the stages of the character's grief--especially since he IS the one who actually died. Would there also be denial, bargaining, anger, and acceptance when one is grieving for one's own death? The challenge here for any actor is to be able to masterfully cram all these unique possibilities for motivation into one solid, yet fluid performance. In this case, Bautista seems to be a tad out of his element hitting the G-spot (the Ghost-spot, pardon the pun). Also pointedly amiss here is a more sharply contoured countenance of a sense of urgency in the fury tinted with confused despair. A more studied take on the character would have entailed an "edge-of-your-seat" rage or a heart-breaking physical anguish that borders on the palpable and tempestuous--anguish so glutinous that it can be cut with a knife when it permeates the atmosphere surrounding the ghost of Sam. In Bautista's hands, Sam's anger is stiffly guarded, fueled by an almost mechanical frustration. The rage wafts within an opaque yet ironically, diluted glob. Bautista is sensational as the placating sweet guy. There are even laudable winning attributes to his portrayal such as the ease and expertise with which he draws the audience in with the magnetism of a seasoned matinee crooner's swoon-worthy vocal textures and stylizations, prevalent in his romantic breathy whispers (as showcased in a guilty-pleasure number, the cheesy "Unchained Melody" serenade to Molly). In sweet and nurturing tones, Bautista justly delivers, but on more challenging high notes, which require the full-bodied flavor of a powerful chest register and the resonance of a strong sustain, he uncomfortably wavers, and substitutes with a reticent falsetto.

Villonco, firstly, is an immaculate visual delight as Molly. She takes on the role with a risk-free characterization, and tucks herself neatly and cozily within the gooey center of her role as a wide-eyed ingénue. The passion is there, but only to a certain depth, and one easily explained at that by a readily available construct: love + death = grief. Colorful avenues for character motivations are always exciting roads to explore, and in this case, one would even perhaps discover a character motivation for Molly that would assuage the tugging question "why is she too needy?" Villonco is perfect as Molly, too good in fact that maybe, just maybe, she is exactly the type of person Villonco portrays her to be--someone who sees sadness as just plain sadness; tears as just plain tears; and love as just simple romance. A character whose emotions never transcend any deeper than the gleaming surface of youth and romance, at least not any deeper than it needs to probe. Perhaps Sam's death and subsequent supernatural return is the wakeup call Villonco's Molly needs so she can put things into proper perspective and finally add more levels to her perceptions. But then again, Molly is an artist, so isn't she supposed to be multi-leveled and "complicated" (as artists usually are) from the get-go? So therein lies the dilemma. One thing is guaranteed with Villonco's performance however, it is that vocally, she is all present. The well-disciplined dynamics she uses on such clear notes are quite a marvel, and her sustain is a powerful engine that she has mastered to halt gracefully when needed brakes are applied. In this production, she is at a comfortable cruising speed. She is at her most resplendent in the heartbreaking "With You," both as Molly, the heartbroken ingénue, and Cris, the skilled minstrel.

Ima Castro plays psychic Oda Mae Brown.

Eckstein, on the other hand, is the consummate charming devil in a sanguine portrayal of Carl. His stage movements are purposeful, almost romantically maniacal, delivering his lines with a sharp tonality distinctly marked with a polished, mellifluous charisma. Handling the complexity of his character as best friend-turned-betrayer with concern and detailed understanding, he forges further by managing to deftly and trickily introduce a well-disguised remorse to the array of emotions that Carl is already going through--jealousy, envy, panic, and anger. Eckstein's singing voice is built like a well-oiled, locomotive--there is a controlled endurance in his singing, much like in his delivery of lines. His vocal texture is sleek, but booming, all the while retaining a comely, almost regal consistency, which manages to expertly chew the scenery.

Although unconventionally more "bat-her-eyes-down-in-shyness" Celia than "grab-life-by-the-disco-balls" Shug in the Color Purple in her turn as Oda Mae Brown, Castro still manages to bring the much needed comedic whoop and fresh street smarts to the white-bread world of Sam and Molly. With a role tailored fit for Goldberg, Castro introduces a hesitant timidity to her interpretation. The "right-in-yo'-face" sass in Oda's lines is all tartly there, but Castro's "snap" is less raucous. Even if more brass in her portrayal would have made for a stronger, feistier psychic, Castro's personal touch still does transformative wonders for her in this production.

The minimalist elements of the set design allow the stage plenty of room to breathe, giving it an opened-up, almost "come hither" vibe. The novelty of projecting New York landscapes onto the pristine white backdrop would appear to be ideal in theory--location changes and transitions would become quicker and more economical. In the long run however, it plainly dulls what should be a more vibrant-than-life entertainment experience. The projected images are too prosaic and give off a depleted and detached one-dimensional feel.

In a story that explores the standstill gulf between life and death, stage lighting would be expected to do most of the heavy lifting in creating illusions of almost magical proportions plunging the world of the stage--and even the entire theater if need be--into a phantasmagoric (the term is used an homage to the master of macabre, Edgar Allan Poe's ghost story The Fall of the House of Usher) vortex of mystery bordering on reverential horror. The blue lighting on Sam's ghost does manage a trick or two, but in scenes of what should be a powerhouse number featuring the full cast in the song "More" in the first half, the lighting diminishes the overall appeal of what is supposed to be the showcase for the ensemble--shying them into the backdrop, a collective countenance of shadowed figures, and indistinguishable expressions in robotic choreography.

(L-R) Bautista, Villonco

Of all the 19 songs in its repertoire, there is one standout that manages to sink itself in with its weight of powerfully gripping melody and painfully, almost brutally honest words: Molly's plaintive, confessional, and conversational "With You" is powerful in its pain as the most vulnerable showcase of what the entire musical is really all about--the naked heartbreak of a tragically lost love. Instead of the repertoire banking too much on the popularity of "Unchained Melody," adding a "With You" reprise would have made for an even better and memorable investment. Oda Mae's "Im Outta Here" plays perfect dramatic foil to Molly's gut-wrenching "With You." The seemingly Dreamgirls-inspired number features Oda Mae's living large daydream sequence, and becomes the defining showcase for Castro's impressive riffs, vocal range, and versatility as a pop vocalist. In this number, the splash of dancing stage colors and Oda Mae's name in bright and moving lights finally give the ensemble the right spotlight and exposure.

In what seems to be a high-risk artistic gamble--taking on a show widely panned by critics in its first production in the United Kingdom three years ago--Director Bobby Garcia makes do with an impressively bold effort to tell a story peppered mostly with songs that contain restrained and bland storytelling with lines too cutesy that they may be considered mere platitudes for the contemporary hopeless romantic. Garcia's seamless direction incorporates a cohesive marriage between a methodical stage consciousness and an alert, focused compassion for the show--setting off the smooth sailing of a steady and unassumingly graceful choreography in an unobtrusive parade of stage blockings; quick costume changes; and other pivotal transition elements.

The heart of the Asia Pacific premiere production of GHOST: The Musical relies on the undeliberate, courageous compassion that the entire cast and crew has lavished on the show throughout its run--and in a theater as intimate as the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium. This is undoubtedly the strongest kinetic force (stronger than any supernatural blast from any poltergeist) that draws the audiences in; keep them in their seats; and push them to believe.

GHOST: The Musical plays its last four performances this weekend. For tickets, call the following:

May 10, Sat., 2pm Jessica Manalo (63) 918 900 4995
May 10, Sat., 8pm Atlantis Productions (63) 917 838 1534
May 11, Sun., 3pm Carlo Joaquin (63) 927 555 8497
May 11, Sun., 8pm Denise Lim (63) 917 790 7039

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