BWW Review: GHOST THE MUSICAL Brings Poltergeists, Pop Songs, and Pottery to Theater West End in Sanford
I've seen the movie Ghost more times than I've seen most of my cousins. It's second only to Sunday school in shaping my ideas about the afterlife and second only to Sister Act in shaping my belief in Whoopi Goldberg as the one true goddess of supernatural comedy. It's the reason I keep pens at banks and save pottery for somebody special - and it's definitely in the top ten list of movies I'm most likely to force you to watch upon becoming my friend.
That's why I figured I might like GHOST: THE MUSICAL more than the critics in London in 2011 or on Broadway in 2012, nearly all of whom deemed it dead on arrival. ...Especially since my first time seeing it would be at Theater West End, an upstart Central Florida venue that has given us one stupendous staging after another this year.
Alas, those critics' crystal balls were crystal clear. As much as I love the movie (and musicals generally), my whirlwind romance with this stage show just wasn't to be.
GHOST has no business being a musical - at least not this musical. Still, you want to show up at Theater West End to see Desiree Montes do her thing as Oda Mae Brown.
Oda Mae is, of course, the psychic at the heart of GHOST. It's the role that won Whoopi her Oscar and sets this story apart from the ordinary rom-com.
In GHOST, Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze in the movie, Preston Ellis at Theater West End) is an up-and-coming Wall Street type whose life gets cut short when a back alley thug shoots him dead in front of his girlfriend, Molly (Demi Moore on the big screen, Lea Marinelli here in Sanford).
Unbeknownst to Molly, Sam doesn't pass on, sticking around as a ghost instead and soon learning that Molly might also be in danger. But she can't see or hear Sam, and nobody else can hear him either... except Oda Mae, who until now believed herself to be a fraud.
Stepping into those psychic shoes isn't easy, not only because it requires playing against an actor you have to pretend you can't see but also because Whoopi Goldberg's characterization is so singular and specific that no audience member will be able to get the Hollywood icon out of their head.
Enter Montes, who manages to capture everything we love about Goldberg's performance while also making the character entirely her own - and belting out some very nice notes while she's at it, even if the songs never seem worth singing.
GHOST: THE MUSICAL is a show filled with run-of-the-mill pop tunes that come across as someone's desperate attempt to cash in on beloved IP. Few of the numbers stand out as memorable, stopping the story for no apparent reason other than adding an extra track to the Cast Recording.
There were just three times that I was happy to have musical numbers as part of this show: "You Gotta Let Go Now" by the hilarious and charismatic Terrence J. Jamison (playing a hospital ghost); the gospel-tinged "Are You a Believer?" in which Danielle Harris, Yara Justina Williams, and Tamir Hernandez Rosa had the small audience cheering; and "Focus," an incantational rap that Michael Cleary makes truly artful and spellbinding as the Subway Ghost.
I marvel at the potential for a version of this show that loses every other song, adapting Ghost as a straightforward play with musical moments built in sparingly - moments that would surely include "Unchained Melody," the famous pottery ballad that does turn up on stage but in very odd fashion. Bruce Joel Rubin adapted this show from his own screenplay and made several changes to the story, which would be fine except that none of them make sense.
In the movie, for example, the Subway Ghost is a character of great interest early on, and we sense he knows more about the afterlife than Sam does. So when Sam goes back to him later in the story, we know why. But on stage, our only Act One interaction with the Subway Ghost is a fleeting slow-motion battle with absolutely zero context. My friend, who'd seen the movie just once (when I forced him to watch it shortly after meeting me years ago), was confused. Frankly, so was I. Michael Cleary gives a great performance when we see him on the subway in Act II, but we're basically meeting him for the first time, and so it all seems random.
Similarly, the stage version manages to squander the movie's über-funny bank scene. Whereas the movie's Molly shows up at the bank unexpectedly, the show does away with that, robbing the scene of the tension that makes it work and instead asking us to believe that Sam is zooming all over Manhattan to haunt his coworker while Oda Mae stalls at the teller.
Then there's the pottery scene, which the show moves from its powerful (and erotic) pre-death placement in the film to an end-of-story performance where Sam is kind of there but Molly does the pottery all by herself, robbing it of everything that makes it one of the most famous scenes of all time. Why!?
These problems are the fault of the show, not Theater West End, which is doing great work here. From walking through doors to possessing bodies, they've figured out some neat ways of achieving supernatural effects on a local stage. As did Broadway's, their production relies heavily on digital projections, and while some aren't entirely convincing, the more unsettling ones work well. There's also a live orchestra band doing very good work with a spooky, scene-setting score. Theater West End has made huge strides with its new sound system, and the few tiny audio hiccups I noticed this time seem hardly worth mentioning.
"Preston Ellis is such a good performer," I said while walking in. He didn't disappoint, providing all the urgency we need from a ghost who knows more than any of the mortals around him. Marinelli has a big, strong voice that suits Molly well. Her vocals occasionally overpower Sam's - maybe a matter of mic levels as much as anything. Kyle McDonald convincingly plays both sides of a coin as Carl, and Eduardo Rivera's Willie Lopez aptly leaves you feeling on edge.
For all my problems with GHOST: THE MUSICAL, Ghost remains an extremely compelling story. Its unusual blend of comedy, drama, horror, and romance is still striking on stage. Last night, I texted a few friends and told them to be sure they see GHOST: THE MUSICAL while it's still at Theater West End. I'm going to recommend the same to you. The flaws in this spooky musical may be grave, but don't let them scare you away.
GHOST: THE MUSICAL plays through June 30, after which Theater West End will wrap up its season with If/Then, a thought-provoking musical that sadly went underappreciated in New York. You might want to go ahead and grab tickets for both.
What did you think of GHOST: THE MUSICAL at Theater West End? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photo Credit: Theater West End