Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: Ghost the Musical at the Hollywood Pantages

Steven Grant Douglas and Katie Postotnik.
Photos by Joan Marcus

While there is no formula for success, the creative team of every new musical holds its breath to see if they have put together a theatrical experience that audiences will respond to and ultimately love. The cast, the crew, the writers and everyone involved pray that the outcome will be worthy of their long hours and hard work, and that the result will, at least in part, do justice to the story. I’m sure that was the intention with Ghost the Musical but an unfortunate combination of elements prevents this musical from soaring and more than once left me wondering, “What were they thinking?”

Helmed by Tony Award-winning director Matthew Warchus (Matilda, God of Carnage, Boeing-Boeing) and adapted for the stage by Bruce Joel Rubin (book & lyrics), who wrote the screenplay for Ghost, along with original music & lyrics by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and Glen Ballard (Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill), it’s hard to believe that so many poor choices could be made in one musical.

To begin with, I question whether this film should ever have ever been adapted for the stage because, in all honesty, I don’t believe the character of Molly Jensen would sing. Even at the height of her pain, she’s a quietly strong kind of internal character that Demi Moore brought to life with incredible pathos in the film. She said more with her stillness and with one look than this disastrous version of Molly Jensen (played by Katie Postotnik) does in the entire show. Postotnik storms around the stage like a football player trying so hard to be earnest that all she does is look and sound uncomfortable.

It doesn’t help that the producers have cast Steven Grant Douglas as Sam Wheat, the other half of one of the most romantic film couples to come out of the ‘90s and played by Patrick Swayze with such heartbreaking honesty that a generation of women fell in love with him. But no one is falling in love with Douglas, who is completely unlikable to the point that one wonders what Postotnik sees in him. The mechanics of the relationship are there but they have no chemistry. At all. And their songs are the kind you’d hear on American Idol, full of power belting and riddled with angst but minus any real feeling. 

Granted, the writers don’t make it easy for them. For example, how can you create the steamy sensuality of the scene at the pottery wheel when, in this stage version, Sam is already dead? And when Molly asks Sam over dinner why he never says “I love you,” their resulting song “Three Little Words” is a frustrating, whiny clash of opinions that doesn’t allow the audience to see that these two people really do love each other. Rather, it feels like that uncomfortable couple you see in a restaurant that you know is fighting and you wonder why they went out at all.

Other puzzling choices:

-- Choreographer Ashley Wallen’s embarrassing Fame-gone-wrong choreography, often in business suits, that sticks out like a sore thumb and makes the dancers look as awkward as they must feel

-- An angry over-the-top Subway Ghost (Brandon Curry) who screams through all of his scenes such that you can’t understand him. When he finally sings about how to move an object, it is with the regrettable lyric “You’ve got to take all the hatred, take all the fear / Shove them in your gut, shove them down here / Your love and desire, it’s like you’re on fire / And let them implode like you’re ready to explode…”

-- A hospital scene in which a trio of inane and unbelievable ghosts informs Sam he’s dead

-- Continually flashing lights in the audience’s face to cover ghostly appearances and disappearances
Among the casting choices that made sense were Fernando Contreras as an imposing Willie Lopez, who successfully captured the danger of his character, and Carla R. Stewart (Oda Mae) and her sisters Evette Marie White (Clara) and Lydia Warr (Louise), who bring such hilarious commitment to their roles that you can’t help but laugh every time they enter the scene. I loved these two church ladies in their pink suits and white heels watching over Oda Mae and turning their supporting roles into something truly memorable.

Stewart, the best thing about this production, makes Oda Mae a fun, ballsy big-voiced character who steals the show with her comic timing and a dynamite fantasy number “I’m Outta Here” featuring a terrific orchestra made up of local and touring musicians led by musical director Matthew Smedal.

There are also more magical effects in this show than I’ve ever seen before, many of which are spectacular and worthy of a musical about ghosts. [Effects are designed by illusionist Paul Kieve with the help of Jon Driscoll (video & projection design), Hugh Vanstone (lighting design) and Bobby Aitken (sound design).] 

Not all of them work (the choice to show a spirit leaving the body by walking horizontally up toward the sky is silly, and the musical could have ended 30 seconds earlier without the final dissolve, which is also a bit silly) but when they do, they are breathtaking to the point of overshadowing the story. It’s like seeing a combination film and stage show transposed on top of each other with so many moving parts that the result feels like an over-stimulated, at times discordant mix of mediums. What’s missing is the simple romantic story about the enduring power of love that transcends all. That is the real magic.

L-R: Nicole Turner, Carla R. Stewart, Evette Maria White and Hana Freeman

Robby Hal Tiwanger and the cast

Katie Postotnik and Steve Grant Douglas

The cast of Ghost the Musical

Katie Postotnik and the cast of Ghost the Musical

Carla R. Stewart and Steven Grant Douglas

Steven Grant Douglas and Katie Postotnik

June 27 - July 12, 2014

Hollywood Pantages
6233 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90028

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