It was the 1990 movie that became a cult classic and brought together the holy trinity of 80’s movie royalty; Whoopi Goldberg, Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze. For anyone of the era, the movie had it all – comedy, romance, and Swayze’s oh-so-drool-worthy charm that crosses dimensions.
With the rabid desire of producer-types in the northern hemisphere to convert just about every movie into a hit stage musical, it isn’t any wonder that Ghost the Musical has appeared before us. Unlike some counterparts however, this adaptation is immediately ahead of the pack bringing original screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin on as writer and lyricist, ensuring the heart of the film is present on stage.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. Stop reading. Go away, watch the movie and come back. You done? Did you love it? I’ll admit, it’s a little dated and perhaps, seen through the eyes of anyone other than a teenage 90s girl, it lacks some depth, but there’s plenty to love and that pottery scene. Without repeating the full story, for the uninitiated, Sam and Molly are in love and happy. Sam dies (suspiciously and tragically), and is stuck hanging around the earthly plane to warn Molly of impending danger and uses a shonky psychic to communicate.
How can a musical developed twenty years later stand up to this nostalgia? In short, it doesn’t really try to do so. Director Matthew Warchus and his extensive creative team have assembled a production for the Australian tour that feels very much of today’s world. The combination of strong performances, sharp and contemporary choreography and exceptional video, projection and magic brings a seemingly ambitious effort to the stage. There’s still plenty of nods to the original, from Sam and Molly’s ‘ditto’ moment to Hy Zaret and Alex North’s ‘Unchained Melody’ haunting much of the score. The musical aims to appeal to nostalgia buffs and millennials alike, with varying levels of success.
First and foremost, the magic of this show is in the special effects. When one character is a ghost for much of the time (spoilers) there’s a lot to contend with, from dead bodies being separated from their spirits, to walking through walls and being beamed up to heaven (or elsewhere as the case may be). The effects in this production are very speccy and it’s the seemingly simple ones that are the most surprising. How exciting to experience these tricks live on stage so frequently nowadays? Ah, the joys of live theatre, folks. While projection is often used (skilfully and often unobtrusively) there are a number of other magical moments that are beyond clever and add to the experience of other-worldy goings on.
Amongst the noise and clutter of effects, the appeal of this musical is the story and the relationships between the lead characters. While some characters are a bit two-dimensional (Alex Rathgeber does a fantastic job as supposed best mate, Carl with very little to work with in character development), Molly and Sam’s love traverses it all. Jemma Rix is the grieving Molly and sings even better than you can imagine from this superstar of music theatre. While her rocking belt defies many others, it is the sadder, more intimate moments that really showcase Rix’s depth of character, and the ballad ‘With You’ is a highlight of Act I. Rob Mills as Sam has plenty of charm and heart, also with punchy, soaring vocals and a fervour that brings the couple together. While Mills is well cast in the role, he faces the challenge of often being on stage without any connection to others, sometimes seeming disconnected and less substantial (although perhaps this is a creative choice). Kudos must be given to these two performers for creating their own versions of these characters that are well suited to the story, yet avoiding fading memories of Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze (although Millsy could have given Swayze’s guns a run for their money any day!).
Without taking away from Rix and Mills, the show-stealer is Wendy Mae Brown as Oda Mae Brown (really? obviously born to play the role). Not even attempting to mimic Whoopi Goldberg’s style, Brown makes the role her own with plenty of visual humour and comic timing and a set of soulful pipes that can blow you away. Her visit to the bank in her garish ‘Sunday best’ is particularly hilarious. Brown is a stellar performer and although constantly captivating and a stand-out, collaborates with the cast without upstaging or grand-standing.
While as a theatre-lover I lament the distinct diminishment of original stories in music theatre and the constant production of shows that are shadows of popular films of yesteryear, Ghost the Musical may well be the show that disproves the rule. None of the songs are particularly memorable, but the music is thoroughly enjoyable and fits well, moving the story forward. The ways in which ‘Unchained Melody’ is intertwined is clever and the small, skilled ensemble brings a modern essence that is unique and original, providing a translation of a much-loved movie to an enjoyable night of live entertainment. Although I love a magical night at the theatre, I’m off to binge-watch Patrick Swayze’s filmography as warning: the feels are strong with this one.