|E. Faye Butler, Liz Shivener & Gregg Goodbrod in "Ghost the Musical"|
(photo: Roger S. Duncan)
Geography matters. Had the new and improved version of “Ghost the Musical” opened first on Broadway, there'd be a virtual lock on at least one of the Tony Awards being presented at this season's ceremony. But its opening was at Maine State Music Theatre (in a co-production with the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA), in its East Coast Regional Premiere, a real coup for the company for the start of its 58th season. The longer and larger version had debuted in Manchester, England in 2011, soon after transferring to London's West End, ultimately opening on Broadway in 2012 (where it lasted a mere 136 performances). This streamlined work was seen recently at the Fulton Theatre, with that company's Artistic Director Marc Robin as Director and Choreographer. He repeats in both roles for this production, which also boasts the same cast and creative crew. As was the case with the original, the Book and Lyrics are by Bruce Joel Rubin (who won a best screenplay Oscar for the 1990 film on which this version is closely based) and Music and Lyrics are by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard. This chamber musical form, with acoustic renditions of the score, is in fact more of a play with music rather than a traditional musical. With ten singing actors and six pit musicians, it's an approach undertaken by Director John Doyle that has worked well for several Sondheim shows as well as the current Broadway iteration of “The Color Purple”. Whether it works for this production is an open question, as it simultaneously highlights the emotional love story at its core while revealing some of its fundamental flaws (inherent in the film as well, despite the fact that it was the highest grossing movie of the year).
The central story is still that of Sam Wheat (Gregg Goodbrod), successful Wall Streeter, and ceramicist Molly Jensen (Liz Shivener) who have just moved to Brooklyn (an update from the TriBeca move in the movie). Sam gets murdered in an apparent mugging event (this is no real spoiler as it happens soon into Act I) and suddenly his money-laundering best friend and colleague Carl (Mike Backes) is all too available to console Molly. Enter the formerly phoney medium Oda Mae Brown (E. Faye Butler) who seems to have found her niche in the spiritual world as she can hear Sam whereas no one else at that point can. It's easy too see why this was an Oscar winning role for Whoopi Goldberg in the film, but Butler isn't mimicking or even channeling that performance, but makes the role her own. And it's about that Tony; this is an award-winning supporting performance if there ever was one. A seasoned performer, Butler has that rare gift of being fully capable of bringing down the house while eschewing chewing the scenery. How she saves the day and everyone gets her or his due is best left unspoken here. There is great support all around, not with dazzling high tech but with earnest and energetic work from the cast and creative crew. The rest of the cast includes the hood Willie Lopez (Caesar F. Barajas), a Subway Ghost (Kyle E. Baird), a Hospital Ghost (Billy Clark Taylor) and mulitiple roles for Jessica Lorion, Janelle McDermoth, and Linnaia McKenzie. The Scenic design by Robert Andrew Kovach is clever, as are the Costume Design by Beth Dunkelberger, complex Lighting Design by Paul Black and important Sound Design by Jacob Mishler.
The major problem here, as in previous incarnations, is that there's little time to establish a true connection among Sam, Molly and Carl (though they're all superb), especially in the case of the two lovers, as Sam comes across as commitment-phobic, never being able to say those three little words (that would be “I love you”) to Molly, instead voicing a non-committal “ditto”, which could be interpreted as his being less than enchanted. Another significant problem is the score, which isn't memorable except for the borrowed “Unchained Melody” (sung thrice, with those unfortunate lyrics, “time goes by so slowly”). While the program lists some thirty “musical numbers”, most are brief snippets that underscore rather than carry the plot along. And the lyrics are often memorable in the wrong sense, such as the verse, “I picked up your shirts” or the spoken line “eternity can wait”. All of the principals have been directed to belt without ceasing, making for a score that's often shouted rather than sung; some variation with the sound balance might be of help. One exception is the rousing “I'm Outta Here”, sung by Butler in the closest thing that the show has to an “eleven o'clock number”.
That said, it comes across as a perfect show for a romantic date. The opening night audience responded enthusiastically, even hissing as the two bad guys in the plot went (literally) to hell. If this audience's involvement is any indication, the producers will have a huge hit on their hands, as this sampling of theatergoers seemed to love it. As for this critic, the appropriate response would be: “Ditto”.