BWW Reviews: GHOST THE MUSICAL at Heinz Hall
When my best friend found out that the first musical I would be reviewing for BWW was Ghost, her first two comments spoke volumes. "You mean like the Patrick Swayze movie?" she asked. When I nodded, she then continued by asking, "Do you think they'll do the bit with the pottery wheel?" Well, rest easy, KB, because the pottery wheel is alive and spinning at Heinz Hall, in the Troika Non-Equity National Tour of Ghost The Musical. But to focus just on the pottery wheel and "Unchained Melody" would be to do a disservice to the rest of the show.
As a stage property, Ghost is aptly named, for it has two ghosts hanging over it: the famous horror-romance film, and the ghost of beloved film star Patrick Swayze, who died only a few years ago. Luckily, the musical manages to escape both of these shadows admirably. Had I not known Ghost had been a blockbuster movie before a musical, I would have assumed the show had been imagined specifically for the stage. Its old-meets-new theatrical approach, blending cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned stage magic, enhances the story's blend of supernatural mysticism and earthy realism. From the very first moment of the show, when a scrim, live actors, front and rear projection and digital screens combine to create an illusion of infinite depth onstage, director Matthew Warchus, video designer Jon Driscoll and illusionist Paul Kieve work together to build a hybrid of digital imagery and physical theatrical magic unlike any show that has playEd Pittsburgh before. When a ghost in a movie manages to pass through a door or jump in and out of a living body, that's just movie magic. When it happens onstage, it's something else entirely, a carefully planned illusion executed live in front of your very eyes. No one applauds the special effects in a movie, but Ghost is the sort of musical that one genuinely DOES leave "humming the scenery."
Luckily, the sight and spectacle is only a hint of what Ghost offers. The cast, an extremely talented ensemble of professional non-Equity actors, perform their roles extremely well, bringing humor and pathos to the tale of the late Sam Wheat (Steven Grant Douglas), a recently-deceased banker desperate to warn his living girlfriend Molly (a very winning Katie Postotnik) that his death at a mugger's hands was not a concidence, but part of a conspiracy against him. In the Patrick Swayze role, Douglas has big shoes to fill, but he fills them admirably by being wonderfully unlike the Dirty Dancing star. His Sam is tall, goofy, a little awkward and heartwarmingly sincere in his adoration of his girlfriend. When he takes a guitar and cheers Molly up with a comedic, Elvis-inspired rendition of "Unchained Melody," he does the seemingly impossible: making an iconic character AND an iconic song into something utterly unique and utterly his own, dispelling all the ghosts that one would expect to haunt this Ghost.
Although her role is less flashy and provides less room for crowd-pleasing comedy or stunts, Katie Postotnik plays Molly with charm, grace and a voice that cuts right to the heart of her many power ballads. The chemistry between her and Douglas is palpable from any seat in the house. Even sitting alone onstage, clutching a pillow and singing her standout number, "With You," Postotnik keeps the audience riveted, eating out of the palm of her hand. Completing the trio of main characters is Carla R. Stewart as Oda Mae Brown, the hack psychic turned genuine spirit channeler. Stewart is undoubtedly the comic lead of this company, and the show gets a comedic shot in the arm every time her character appears onstage. Stewart milks every punchline and every bit of physical comedy for all they're worth, and even throws one or two carefully-placed winks to the audience into the mix. Why not? She IS a channeler after all-- who else could better or more appropriately break the fourth wall? Beyond pure comedy, Stewart tears the roof off with her eleven o'clock number, "I'm Outta Here."
The supporting ensemble and dancers add immensely to the show's appeal, playing multiple roles and serving as living scenery during the many montage-like musical sequences that move the plot around the city. Brandon Curry, as a genuinely terrifying Subway Ghost, and Evette Marie White and Nichole Turner as Oda Mae's helpers-slash-henchwomen, stand out in particular among the recurring characters, and Hana Freeman as Mrs. Santiago gets great comic mileage out of her one-scene cameo. Tying the whole show together is Ashley Wallen's athletic and intense choreography, executed to the rhythmic and percussive score by songwriting legend Glen Ballard and his co-writer, Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. It is a testament to the skills of Ballard and Stewart that not only are the songs pleasant and moving, but that the incidental music and background scores, especially the haunting chorus of "Higher Spirits" that recurs throughout Act 1, are just as interesting as the songs themselves.
No show is perfect, and Ghost is no exception. A few of the songs are serviceable more than memorable, such as the trio "Life Turns On A Dime," and the use of "Unchained Melody" as a full musical number in the finale, after its use as a real in-universe pop song for the rest of the show, edges a little too close to camp for the serious moment it is meant to be. But with a cast as good as this, and a visual, physical presentation as unbelievable as this, it's easy to overlook a few deficiencies in the actual material. Ghost may not be profound, but it is certainly haunting, and anyone would be hard-pressed to scare up a more frightfully good time (pardon the string of puns). Come for the pottery, stay for the magic.