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‘Ghost: The Musical’ Is Pretty, Slick, and Out-of-Whack

January 23, 2014

ghostmusicalGhost: The Musical is the best movie I’ve seen at the Majestic. Unfortunately, Ghost: the Musical is not a movie—and that terrible paradox informs every moment of Ghost’s (not inconsiderable) running time. The more filmic Ghost seems—particularly in its visuals, but also in its brisk edits and cinematic swipes—the better it works: in other words, the harder it tries to efface its actual medium (the stage musical), the closer it comes to success. But that’s ultimately a perverse task: why musicalize a movie only to subvert that musicality at every turn with cinematic tropes? What’s the point?

In any case, it couldn’t, or can’t, be done: all the parts of a traditional musical—book, lyrics, music—are still there. They’re just mostly terrible. So the audience appreciates all the more the sheer dazzle of the staging and the brilliance of the design, such as a terrific rotating subway sequence in the First Act: they’re a distraction from the dullness of the human drama. The book, adapted by original screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, evinces little awareness of theatrical conventions, and closely follows the contours of the movie: a yuppie Brooklynite couple, Molly and Sam, meets tragedy, and only the intervention of a psychic, Oda Mae—played by Whoopi Goldberg in the film—allows for the husband’s ghost to protect his fiancée from further harm. Director Matthew Warchus does his damnedest with the material—he’s a sort of genius with it, actually—and I can’t imagine watching this show in anything other than its current touring incarnation: without the amazing illusions (designed by Paul Kieve) and video design (by Jon Driscoll), there is almost no there there. The music and lyrics—credited to the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, and to Glen Ballard—are mostly forgettable and often fail to move the story forward: a particularly egregious example is Molly’s bland ballad “With You,” which stops the first act in its tracks. (We already know she’s sad; by the end of the song, we know now that she’s really, really sad. This is not gripping stagecraft.) It’s also one of the few places in which director Warchus arrests the constant stream of video clips and cross-cutting–a mistake, as it happens.

A second act disaster, “Focus,” features a Subway Ghost screaming a largely incomprehensible song about telekinesis, featuring pedagogical gems like so: “now feel the tension, that’s the key factor / focus your attention like a nuclear reactor.” Ack. A few of the production numbers are kind of fun: Oda Mae gets a gospel-inflected song in the first act (“Are You A Believer”) and a hyperkinetic one in the second (“I’m Outta Here”), featuring flashy (if somewhat gaudy) threads by Daryl Stone. The choreography, by Ashley Warren, clearly has its roots in music videos—there’s a certain flatness to many of the tableaux—and that smoothness makes the musical look even more like widescreen TV. As Sam, Steven Grant Douglas is lanky and agreeable, though Robby Haltiwanger (as a suspicious best friend) has a more interesting role and execution. On opening night, Katie Postotnik (Molly) struggled with some of her melodic lines—pitch was a problem—though that might be chalked up to the ear-splitting sound design of Bobby Aitken, which manages to be both loud and indistinct at the same time. As Oda Mae/Whoopi Goldberg, Carla R. Stewart clearly steals the show.

And that’s because Stewart is the only actor in the entire production that feels somehow a part of the Grand Tradition of Live Theater: it’s as if she’s fighting a one-woman battle against the soulless projection design that threatens to engulf her. So, in a weird, meta- sort of way, Ghost: The Musical isn’t about love and romance at all—the relationship between Molly and Sam couldn’t be more boring, really—but about the tension between performer and machinery (a tension also to be found, in, say, Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, or, in a different sense, in the Metropolitan Opera’s new version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle). It’s part of modernity’s struggle to puzzle out the proper ratio of technology to humanity on stage; and in the case of Ghost, that ratio seems seriously out-of-whack. It’s pretty, and it’s slick, but as affecting drama, Ghost: The Musical hasn’t a ghost of a chance.

Ghost runs through this weekend at the Majestic; running time is 2 hrs and 40 minutes, with one intermission.

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