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updated: 1/9/2014 1:52 PM

Flashy illusions provide magic in 'Ghost The Musical'

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  • Katie Postotnik and Steven Grant Douglas star in the national tour of the London and Broadway show "Ghost The Musical" adapted from the hit 1990 film. "Ghost The Musical" plays Chicago's Oriental Theatre through Sunday, Jan. 19.

      Katie Postotnik and Steven Grant Douglas star in the national tour of the London and Broadway show "Ghost The Musical" adapted from the hit 1990 film. "Ghost The Musical" plays Chicago's Oriental Theatre through Sunday, Jan. 19.
    Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • The medium Oda Mae Brown (Carla R. Stewart) is shocked to find that she's able to communicate with the spirit of Sam Wheat (Steven Grant Douglas) in the national tour of "Ghost The Musical."

      The medium Oda Mae Brown (Carla R. Stewart) is shocked to find that she's able to communicate with the spirit of Sam Wheat (Steven Grant Douglas) in the national tour of "Ghost The Musical."
    Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Steven Grant Douglas and Katie Postotnik star in the national tour of the London and Broadway show "Ghost The Musical" playing Chicago's Oriental Theatre through Sunday, Jan. 19.

      Steven Grant Douglas and Katie Postotnik star in the national tour of the London and Broadway show "Ghost The Musical" playing Chicago's Oriental Theatre through Sunday, Jan. 19.
    Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Katie Postotnik, Steven Grant Douglas and Robby Haltiwanger star in the national tour of the London and Broadway show "Ghost The Musical," adapted from the hit 1990 film.

      Katie Postotnik, Steven Grant Douglas and Robby Haltiwanger star in the national tour of the London and Broadway show "Ghost The Musical," adapted from the hit 1990 film.
    Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Video: 'Ghost The Musical' illusions

 
 

"Ghost The Musical" is the kind of show where you leave the theater humming the scenery and special effects more than you do the new score. This turns out to be both a major asset and an artistic pity for this 2011 London musical adapted from Paramount Pictures' 1990 blockbuster film "Ghost."

Now running at Chicago's Oriental Theatre in a non-Equity tour heavily based upon its 2012 Broadway incarnation, "Ghost The Musical" isn't really allowed to shake off the yoke of the original film that inspired it. "Ghost The Musical" may have a new pop-styled score by songwriters Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics fame) and Glen Ballard, but their efforts are overshadowed by the show's inclusion of Hy Zarel and Alex North's 1950s pop hit "Unchained Melody," which so famously accompanied the iconic romantic film moment of the late heartthrob Patrick Swayze embracing his leading lady, Demi Moore, as they sat together at a pottery wheel.

"Ghost The Musical" also isn't really allowed to become its own theater entity because of the book and additional lyrics of Bruce Joel Rubin, who has adapted his original Academy Award-winning "Ghost" screenplay for the stage a tad too faithfully. Many of the early jokes and lines of dialogue transplanted verbatim from the film don't deliver the same kind of punch onstage. Rubin's decision to update the show a couple of decades doesn't really hurt the show's structure, though an early joke taking a swipe at Brooklyn doesn't really jibe with the reality of that rapidly gentrifying and increasingly pricey New York borough.

But like the film, "Ghost The Musical" becomes more dramatically compelling and subsequently more theatrically interesting once the hero, banker Sam Wheat (Steven Grant Douglas), is killed off in a seemingly random botched mugging attempt and his ghost goes on a supernatural quest to protect his surviving sculptor girlfriend, Molly Jenson (Katie Postotnik).

Illusionist Paul Kieve, working in close tandem with video and projection designer Jon Driscoll, has a field day in creating a number of special stage effects showing the parallel supernatural world that Sam has newly entered into. Actors and objects physically float and move on their own at amazing key moments and body doubles depicting corpses appear onstage like magic. And though one can easily guess at how the effect of Sam walking through a door is achieved (pay attention to that large frame for a "Barbarella" poster), it's still a fun theatrical moment.

"Ghost The Musical" also dazzles with its heightened use of LED light screens for scenery and animation of New York City and its frenzied denizens (Rob Howell created the original sets and costumes for the London and Broadway productions, but his uncredited work appears to have been adapted for the tour). Also very impressive is Hugh Vanstone's frenetic lighting design (re-created for the tour by Joel Shier), but be warned that lights are often flashed into the audience to help conceal some of the stage magic.

But despite the many wonders of "Ghost The Musical's" production design and effects, they can't conceal the feeling that it's all a lot of surface flash to paper over the show's deficiencies with its script and score. Tony Award-winning director Matthew Warchus also feels a bit hampered with his work on "Ghost The Musical," especially at times when the show becomes like a checklist of famous moments from the film to appease die-hard fans of the original. Ashley Wallen's angular choreography may help define the speedy pace of the New York depicted in the show, but his work often feels tacked on to fill out the stage and to give the chorus more tasks to do rather than feeling like an organic part of the storytelling.

With so many deficiencies in the script and score, the ensemble still manages to do a good job technically and dramatically.

Steven Grant Douglas makes for a dashing leading man as Sam Wheat, vocally matching the amazing pop pipes of his co-star, Katie Postotnik as the grieving girlfriend, Molly. Robby Haltiwanger more than makes for a suitable villain in the money laundering Carl Bruner, easily concealing then showing his character's duplicitous and manipulative side.

As the medium Oda Mae Brown, Carla R. Stewart is technically proficient in the role that won Whoopi Goldberg an Academy Award for the original film. Yet for some reason, there's a missing motivational spark to Stewart's performance that just keeps her a step away from truly commanding the stage in her big sung numbers and comic moments when she's communicating with Sam. Stewart also doesn't quite transcend the sassy stereotype that she's given for her characterization, though she can be forgiven for the bling-glorifying song "I'm Outta Here" since it has been obviously tacked on just to give the show a flashy Act II production number.

Other notable performances include Brandon Curry as the violent Subway Ghost (given a great rapping number in "Focus") and Fernando Contreras as the mugger/henchman Willie Lopez.

"Ghost The Musical" clearly doesn't transcend its source material, making it yet another screen-to-stage musical that feels created just to capitalize on a popular pre-existing property with instant name recognition. But least "Ghost The Musical" on tour has been packaged with a technically impressive production that undeniably gives you your money's worth in terms of stage spectacle, if not in terms of songs or storytelling.

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