Want to know what's wrong with contemporary musical theater? Then sidle over to the Lunt-Fontanne Theater and catch a performance of Ghost the Musical. Yes, the show is yet another in a long series of safe movies-turned-into-musicals, in this case the 1990 film "Ghost" with Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Academy Award winner Whoopi Goldberg. But that's not what makes the show bad. We've had good musicals based on movies (Once, The Producers, Hairspray) and bad ones (9 to 5, Young Frankenstein, The Goodbye Girl).
No, Ghost is bad for three essential reasons. First, the production is a triumph of spectacle over storytelling, with enough technology, video projections, and visual effects to outfit an entire season of musicals. But, as often happens with over-produced shows (see Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), the creators here have lost sight of whether the story, the songs, and the physical production were working together cohesively.
Second, Ghost is a testament to the fact that, as we've seen so many times in recent years, people who can write hit pop songs don't automatically have the skills to craft effective musical-theater songs. The music here is by record producer Glen Ballard, as well as Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame. Ballard and Stewart share the lyric-writing credit with librettist Bruce Joel Rubin. The songs they've created for this show might well have come from the respective "trunks" of these veteran popular songwriters for all the relevance they have to the story at hand. And third, as if to hide the fact that the songs don't really add anything to the story, the performers adopt the kind of belt-your-face scream-singing that too many people these days seem to think passes for an effective musical performance.
The real stars of Ghost would seem to be scenic designer Rob Howell and projection/video designer Jon Driscoll, upon whose work the show is extraordinarily dependent. As the show begins, a scrim stands between the performers and the audience so that we can see the first of many video sequences telling us where we are and what's going on. In a well-crafted musical, the opening number would establish time and place. In Ghost, we get "Here Right Now," the first in a series of generic pop songs that could just as easily fit into any other show. The lyric is alternately bland and impenetrable, sometimes within the same line: "Here is where we make it everything we'll ever need." Um...what? We also get slant rhyme aplenty, including "One foot in front of the other/So much for us to discover" and "As long as we stay together/We'll just keep getting better."
The scrim remains in place for what seemed like the first five minutes of the show, although I'm sure it only seemed that long because I was becoming increasingly peevish. In a way, the scrim presents an apt metaphor for the production in general, a physical manifestation of the emotional barrier that the creators have inadvertently created between the characters and the audience. The scrim eventually rises, but the barrier doesn't. The characters never become real, which lessens the impact of the story's central tragedy and its aftermath. I found myself thinking, amid all the flashy video sequences, why didn't they just play the movie? Why bother hiring actors at all if you're going to upstage them with technology and not provide them with credible characters to inhabit? It seemed like just one more step toward making performers dispensable.
The real shocker here is the show's director: Tony-Award winner Matthew Warchus. Those who have seen God of Carnage, The Norman Conquests, and Boeing-Boeing might be excused for thinking that Warchus can do no wrong. Those of us who have seen Ghost can attest that even Warchus is fallible. Of course, even the best directors have their missteps: Harold Prince and Grind, Bob Fosse and Big Deal, Michael Bennett and Ballroom. Warchus actually has a checkered history with musicals, including the lifeless 2001 revival of Follies and the ill-advised stage adaptation of Lord of the Rings. (Although I do hear good things about Matilda, which Warchus also directed, and which is coming to Broadway next season.) In Ghost, Warchus delivers a few deft directorial touches, particularly during the final moments of the show, but these moments far from compensate for the scattered nature of the production in general, and for the lack of a strong hand in bringing the various production pieces together more cohesively.
Oh, yeah. The cast. I almost forgot. Lost in the shuffle of Ghost are are a passel of seemingly talented performers, although Richard Fleeshman, as leading male Sam Wheat, seems to have been cast mostly on the basis of his abs. Broadway veteran Caissie Levy, as Molly Jensen, is a terrific performer who deserves far better material than she's given here. Bryce Pinkham has the thankless role of Carl, Sam's treacherous friend, and he's wonderfully smarmy in the role, but the audience seemed to respond more to Pinkham's own set of well-defined abdominals. Tony nominee Da'Vine Joy Randolph, brings her own sassy spin to Oda Mae Brown, but her big number in the second act, "I'm Outa Here," is so filled with pointlessly busy stage business that Randolph gets lost amid the bustle.
Ghost received three Tony Award nominations: Randolph for Featured Actress in a Musical, as well as nominations for lighting and set design. That's sort of like when the big sci-fi blockbuster movie of the year gets shut out in all the real Oscar categories, but the Academy throws the film a bone with production nods. I would like to remind the Tony voters that "best" design doesn't necessarily mean "most expensive" or "most complicated." Ideally, it would mean "design that works with the dramatic intent of the piece, enhancing the inherent effectiveness of the work, rather than hiding the fact that there essentially is no effectiveness." When I attended Ghost, the crowd applauded the special effects. I'm genuinely hoping that the Tony voters don't follow suit.