Ghost, a romantic fantasy thriller of a film, found its way into audience’s hearts in 1990 with its passion, mystery and unique story. Ghost the Musical however, now in Sydney, loses sight of the searing passion and heart that drove the film to huge success.
The story of the musical, much like the film, opens in the middle of a sizzling romance between suave banker Sam (Patrick Swayze in the film, Rob Mills here), and free-spirited artist Molly (Jemma Rix takes on the Demi Moore role in this production). Suddenly, Sam is killed in a mugging gone wrong and, as the title suggests, stays behind as a ghost with unfinished business. With the aid of resistant yet ambitious psychic Oda Mae Brown, (Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar for the role; Wendy Mae Brown takes it on in the musical), Sam tries to protect Molly from an unexpected danger.
The film, although corny, is often touching and ultimately captivates audiences with the strength of its unlikely and enduring love story. Sadly, this story hasn’t translated well to stage. The score (by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard) is filled with bland pop-like songs, and only a few standout numbers. The contemporary sound is well handled by musical director Mike Pensini and the orchestra, but the music often struggles to rise to anything near as exhilarating as the life-and-death romance should warrant, bar a few moments such as ‘Suspend My Disbelief/I Had a Life’ , the Act One closer.
Ashley Wallen’s choreography is another odd example of restraint in a show backboned by unrestrained melodrama. It’s executed well and with great enthusiasm by the ensemble, but the group numbers are uninteresting and stale, failing to strike a balance between classic musical theatre and edgy contemporary inspired dance, as the pop-inflected score would suggest.
The incendiary relationship between Swayze and Moore was iconic, and Rob Mills and Jemma Rix lack that famously fervent chemistry, creating something lovely but ultimately safe. Rix is vocally stunning, and particularly touching in ‘With You’, her ballad – but this was one of the only moments her character was allowed a vocal response to her grief. Mills too is vocally sound, and he is convincing and earnest as the ghost trapped between worlds.
Wendy Mae Brown a clear audience favourite as con-artist/ medium Oda Mae Brown and brings both comedy and a powerful vocal performance to the role, but the racial politics of the show and her character are unsettling at best. It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between well-intentioned humour and blatant racism and clearly the audience on opening night appreciated a lot of the humour, laughing along. But when the only black characters onstage are forced into caricatures, and their only purpose is to bring trite humour or solutions into the story – sidekicks layered with stereotypes and ingrained racism – it doesn’t make the show racially diverse; it makes the show racially thoughtless.
With a lacklustre score and choreography, the impressive technical vision of the show is its best achievement. Relying heavily on a series of projections, the opening pan through New York City builds anticipation and momentum before the show even begins, and a lot of the effects and screens are effective devices for transforming the mystery from the film to the stage. However, these moments are often overdone, potentially trying to cover up for what the musical lacks in effective storytelling and commanding songs, pushing the production into a whole new sphere of corniness, like when a sex scene becomes a blur of projected limbs.
Some may enjoy this show due to its nostalgic connection to the film, others may appreciate the impressive technical feats, and some may enjoy a cheesy musical that entertains, and there are moments to enjoy in the show, but it isn’t an exceptional piece of musical theatre.