Book: Bruce Joel Robin
Music: Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard
Lyrics: Bruce Joel Robin, Dave Stewart, Glen Ballard
Director: Matthew Warchus
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The theme of lives cut short and spirits unready for the afterlife because of work unfinished has been a staple of the entertainment industry, with Ghost The Musical being the latest exploration of the theme. But based on the hugely successful 1990 film, Ghost, how can a stage adaptation live up to the full force of Hollywood to provide realistic ghost effects? The answer is through stunning visuals based around Rob Howell’s intricate and breathtaking set and the magical input of illusionist Paul Kieve. Special effects come thick and fast, helping the capacity audience suspend their disbelief as we watch the torment of the dead Sam Wheat (Stewart Clarke) and the bereaved Molly Jonson (Rebecca Trehearn).
As the show opens, we see Sam and Molly moving into their first apartment in Brooklyn. Even in the opening numbers, we see the technical wizardry of the set that allowing projection and video screenings to whisk us into the hurly burly that is New York City. A large ensemble cast of accomplished dancers fills the stage with aplomb, recreating the feeling of being somehow alone in a crowd through the almost balletic and seemingly gravity-defying choreography of Ashley Wallen. We also see how close Sam and Molly really are, focused by the lens of Molly’s heartbreak as Sam is killed in a random mugging. Here is the first real magical effect allowing Sam to rise out of his dead body and observe Molly’s distress without being able to interact. Sam quickly tracks down his murderer, Willie Lopez (Ivan De Freitas), discovers his death was by no means random and that Molly may also be in danger: worse, he has no way of warning her. Enter the force of nature that is sham psychic and low grade con artist, Oda Mae Brown, played by Wendy Mae Brown. Bizarrely, she can hear Sam and is convinced, eventually, to help him communicate with Molly and attempt to bring his killers to some sort of justice, leading to the show stopper close to Act I with ‘Suspend My Disbelief/I Had A Life’.
Wendy Mae Brown has big shoes to fill: Whoopi Goldberg created the rôle so memorably in the film that it is difficult to imagine anyone else. But Brown is more than equal to the challenge. Every time she is on stage she is the centre of attention, filling the stage, switching from comic to tragic, sassy to vulnerable, in a blink. Loud, brash, colourful, she is undoubtedly the star of this show, preventing it from wallowing in sentimentality. For most of the show, she is the only mortal who can hear Sam, and the comic potential of those situations is fully realised without detracting from the mood of the whole. The scenes in which, under Sam’s direction, Oda Mae withdraws ten million dollars and then donates it to charity are comedy gold.
There is a concern, especially in the first half, that the technical wizardry onstage might overshadow the human elements of the story, a fear which seems to have some substance in the opening numbers as Trehearn’s voice has a nasal quality and lacks some punch. However, the effects always support the action, never appearing contrived nor excessively saccharine, and one quickly accepts them, marvelling at just how well they work. In the second half, we become fully immersed and the effects are barely noticed as such. One memorable section in the New York subway as Sam meets a ghost full of anger who will ultimately help in his quest stretches the technical boundaries, providing a thrilling sequence. Others, for example, as Sam learns to negotiate doors in his ghostly state, are simply baffling!
So with a simple story of good vs evil at its heart, and with a beautiful couple as the main protagonists demonstrating once more that love really can conquer all, this production treads a fine line effectively. Yes, there are some unexplained plot holes, but one can hardly fail to be moved by the dramatic set pieces, including the famous potter’s wheel scene. On leaving the auditorium moist eyed, there were plenty of tissues being quietly put away, testament to the power of a simple story of the power of enduring love.