Theatre Royal, March 18 & 19
Based on the hugely popular 1990 film starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, Ghost the Musical has a lot to live up to – but happily it has been translated to the stage with plenty of whiz-bang flair. It’s certainly not the greatest musical ever written but it’s great entertainment.
Adapting his own Academy Award-winning screenplay, Bruce Joel Rubin sticks fairly faithfully to the film with a few minor changes to the supernatural love story-cum-thriller.
High-flying banker Sam Wheat (Rob Mills) and his sculptor girlfriend Molly Jensen (Jemma Rix) have just moved into their dream loft apartment in Brooklyn. Returning home from a romantic dinner, Sam is killed in a street mugging but finds himself trapped between this world and the next as he tries to save Molly from mortal danger.
Directed by Matthew Warchus (Matilda the Musical), the production creates a tangible sense of the gritty New York world where the story is set. The show has a cinematic feel, not just in its use of Jon Driscoll’s dynamic video projections – which help establish the different locations and support a number of the illusions including the subway scene – but in the way Warchus keeps the action flowing swiftly and seamlessly.
Stage illusionist Paul Kieve does an ingenious job of creating spectacular supernatural effects on stage, from Sam passing through a solid door to departed souls being whisked to heaven or hell.
Having Sam in a white shirt under pale blue lighting, with a slight reverb on his voice, works well to differentiate him from the living characters. Bobby Aitken’s sound effects heighten the supernatural aspect, while Hugh Vanstone’s coloured, rock concert lighting is also integral to the visual wizardry.
And, yes, the iconic pottery wheel scene with its wet, slippery clay is there but at a different point in the story when Sam is already dead. It’s much less erotic, which is a sensible, tasteful decision, but the scene is so short you can sense disappointment from the audience.
The book and lyrics are humdrum at times and the pop rock score by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and heavyweight producer Glen Ballard isn’t wildly memorable. Nor do the songs always move the action forward. However, they are catchy enough, while the best – such as Molly’s lyrical ballads With You and Nothing Stops Another Day – have lovely melodies. The Righteous Brothers’ iconic Unchained Melody from the film is used effectively as a motif through the show.
Too often, Ashley Wallen’s uninspiring choreography looks as if the ensemble members are dancers in a music video clip rather than their movement supporting and adding to the scene. However, the physical language used for Sam as he starts to negotiate the world as a ghost is cleverly done. Accompanied by swooshing sound effects that seem to slice the air, the movement creates a believable illusion of Sam passing through bodies and being unable to grip objects. Mills, David Denis as the subway poltergeist and David Roberts as Carl all handle the physicality convincingly as they are thrown around in supernatural fight scenes.
The musical really takes off with the appearance of Oda Mae Brown, the phony psychic who is astonished to discover she can hear Sam. British actor Wendy Mae Brown almost puts Whoopi Goldberg in the shade with her larger-than-life, sassy, gloriously comic characterisation. She has a rich, honey-smooth voice, nails every comic moment and raises the roof with her gospel-infused numbers.
Rob Mills and Jemma Rix have a nice rapport and work well together vocally. Rix conveys Molly’s heartache without becoming soppy and her voice is gorgeous whether she’s unleashing a powerhouse belt or touching the heart with a pop ballad.
Mills has always been hugely likeable on stage but here he matches it with a performance that delivers dramatically and emotionally. We share his frustration and his shock at Carl’s betrayal, while his grief and love for Molly feel real. His singing is also stronger than ever, and he really rocks his big number I Had a Life.
David Roberts plays Carl with just the right mix of easy charm and ruthlessness without overdoing it in a strongly acted performance. Ross Chisari is suitably thuggish as hood-for-hire Willie Lopez and David Denis exudes plenty of agro as the hip-hop subway ghost.
For all its flaws, Ghost the Musical is cleverly staged and extremely entertaining. It sweeps you up in its story-telling and while the flashy staging ramps up the wow factor, the emotional story still shines through. Clearly some remained untouched but to my surprise I was in tears at the end, and I wasn’t alone.
Ghost the Musical plays at the Theatre Royal until May 14. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au 136 100
A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 20