Am I the only person in the world who didn’t see the film Ghost? I thought it would be an interesting piece to see with absolutely no preparation, because the film is so well known, fresh eyes and ears might be hard to find. The book for this musical was written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who wrote the original version for the film, and I am told that it is quite faithful to the original film. Forgive me then if I make hopelessly naive plot descriptions of this show.
Sam (played by Rob Mills) and Molly (played by Jemma Rix) are a young couple in love, living in New York, and in the first flush of excitement at planning their future together. Their dream is cut short, when – in what appears to be a senseless, violent street mugging – Sam is killed. A ghost world quickly inhabits the same space, and Sam gradually realizes he has joined it. He becomes aware that Molly is in danger, and that there was some connection between his death and a work colleague. Needing to find a way to warn her, he eventually is able to communicate with a shopfront medium, Oda Mae Brown (played by Wendy Mae Brown) – legitimising this career charlatan’s claim at a connection with the spirit world – much to her initial terror, and later, her comic annoyance. Along the way, Sam learns some ghostly techniques from another ghost (played with startling intensity by David Dennis), who is himself haunted to madness by the effects of a most unhappy lifetime.
The emotional connection in the story comes in the pain of seeing Sam and Molly trying to connect between the worlds of the dead and the living, particularly since we saw that while alive, Sam had not yet achieved sufficient maturity for real commitment to Molly. We also have the satisfaction of seeing the two bad characters pay the ultimate price. The issue of asking the audience to accept the idea of ghosts is dealt with by mining the comic potential of the various encounters – a device Coward used long ago to brilliant effect in Blithe Spirit. Just in case we need any further help, there is even an up-tempo number asking us to “suspend your disbelief”.
That said, it is Wendy Mae Brown’s scenes steal that steal the show – her lively stage presence, flawless characterization, comic timing – both verbally and physically, considerable singing and dancing skills lift the show inestimably. Her scenes suffer none of the special effects overkill that made some of the rest of the show difficult to engage with – she is rightfully allowed to take the space, and she is brilliant.
There was a large screen which was used extensively and imaginatively – some of the effects, such as the scenes on the trains and in the city streets caused me to draw breath at the both the cleverness and the relationship with the action on stage itself. At times, it was close to seamless, making the prerecorded and the live imagery interact in a way I have not seen before.
Other electronic special effects however, I rued from start to finish. Perhaps I have unusually sensitive eyes and ears, but the lighting effects were frequently such a violent assault that my only defense was to sit with eyes tight shut until the scene was over. At other times, these effects were so distracting that I found I had to shield my eyes so that I could see what was happening on stage. In fact, there is so much happening in the special effect department that when performers came forward for their curtain calls, I felt that for some of them, we really didn’t know what they had done – we hadn’t had a chance to bond with them amidst the maelstrom of flashing lights and excessive noise at painful amplitude. Even the two leads I felt were diminished by working at a human scale, while so frequently framed by a war of light and noise.
It’s quite possible that the MTV generation will enjoy these effects. I asked a colleague present at the show who had seen it both on Broadway and the West End. He said “They have definitely amped up the special effects since those productions”. Similarly, the volume of sound was at times painful too, but I was prepared for that. Unsure whether the stadium show ethos would rule the music too, I brought earplugs which were effective in bringing the sound level down to something I could process. Both sound and lights brought up a question of scale for me – much of what happens at a human level on stage requires us to draw our attention in – then these sound and light assaults would begin again, and this tends to diminish our engagement with the characters.
The one thing I did know about this show was that it was the “Unchained Melody” musical (“Time….goes by….so slowly….”). I hoped that this song would not be overused – milked, even. It isn’t. When it first appears, the character plays it lightly, humorously, to disarm his girlfriend’s moment of passive aggressive hostility. We actually yearn for its reappearance, and when it comes again, it is only just enough. I think this is very finely judged.
Apart from Unchained Melody, the rest of the music is heavily grounded for the most part in 1980’s pop rock, and the power ballad. Although the songs are new and specifically composed for the show, their style are as familiar as a warm bath because the chord progressions, bass lines and textures are all so well known that even with the new melodies, we know “we’ve been here before” How clever, I thought, to capture the advantage of a Jukebox musical, all while having purpose written material. The songs are lyrically simple, mostly reflections on emotional state rather than moving the plot forward, and lyrically repetitive, so there is an overall effect that they are extremely easy to listen to. Like pop music, you really can just let them wash over you.
Rob Mills sings this show very well – and though it’s a pop rock score, there is considerable demand on the three main voices. Each has a song that is clearly a vocal tour de force, and all three shine through their “big sing” pieces. Rob Mills shines at his, as do Jemma Rix and Wendy Mae Brown. The style of these songs is more or less 80’s power ballad. The songs are well written for each voice, the music and lyrics being written by Dave Stewart (Eurythmics) and Glen Ballard. The chorus mostly gets to sing “Oooh” and echo some words, the trios are similarly very simple in texture – it’s clearly intended to be easy to take in.
This show contains so many elements – of the musical theatre, cinematic effects and the stadium show. On opening night at least, I found something can be less than the sum of its parts. Because of the aforementioned questions of scale, I found that the cohesion of the whole is wanting – so often there was distraction when more subtle effects might have brought more connection.
Ghost is playing at the Regent Theatre until 12 March. Bookings through Ticketmaster.