Review: Ghost the musical, Piccadilly

“You in danger gurl!”

In the story of Ghost the Musical, it is the character Molly who is the ‘gurl’ in danger, but it turned out to be the woman saying it, Sharon D Clarke’s Oda Mae Brown who should have paid heed as a broken foot has ruled her out of the show for a while now and possibly out of the Broadway transfer too. I was particularly gutted as she was one of the main reasons I had booked to see the show, to catch the original leading cast before they trot over to New York to open the show there, and Clarke had been cited as one of the main attractions of the show.

As the show premiered in Manchester, my parents were amongst the first to see it and I even got my dad to write about his opinions for me on this very blog. But even despite his qualified recommendations, I couldn’t quite work up the enthusiasm to fork out for the show and it was only this imminent departure of Caissie Levy and Richard Fleeshman that got me there (which is ironic in itself as I don’t really see what all the fuss is about with Levy and Fleeshman struggled for me in Legally Blonde). But off to the Piccadilly I went with my mixed feelings, along with a pleasingly diverse crowd of theatregoers, and I left with mixed feelings too.

Based on the iconic 1990 Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore film about Sam and Molly, a young couple whose happiness is ripped from them when Sam is killed in a robbery, Sam finds himself trapped inbetween worlds, able to see that Molly remains in danger but unable to communicate with her. It is only when he meets fraudulent psychic Oda Mae Brown, who finds she suddenly can communicate with the other side, that he is able to try and warn her. Oh, and there’s some pottery as well. Bruce Joel Rubin has adapted his own script and by and large, has cleaved quite closely to his original but in Matthew Warchus’ production, shinily designed by Rob Howell, it does become something occasionally rather special.

Vast expanses of video wall (by John Driscoll) look fresh and modern and really quite effective, and illusionist Paul Kieve has worked some genuine magic in creating a set of tricks and effects which are jaw-droppingly good and ingeniously delivered. The way in which ‘ghosts’ leave their body is repeatedly, excellently, done and misdirection used so brilliantly that not a seam could be seen.

And despite my reservations, Sharon D Clarke’s understudy Lisa Davina Phillip did a cracking job as Oda Mae, whose vitality gives the show the shock in the arm that it needs to avoid the cloying, gloopy tone that sometimes threatens to take over.

Caissie Levy has adopted a rather shouty, fierce attitude to grief – presumably to avoid being too maudlin as her character has to do a lot of moping – but it was one that was hard to warm to for me. And Richard Fleeshman continued to underwhelm me, again erring on the shouty side as if volume equals character. The music, by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, didn’t always help here, its rock-inflected tones often over-loud for the singers and lyrically rather anodyne. There’s some good tunes in here though as well, With You and Suspend my Disbelief in particular and the driving Rain/Hold On act 2 opener (which I just knew would appeal to my dad!).

Real problems emerge though with the inclusion of an ensemble whose dance moves – so very often done in incredibly annoying slow-motion – are, at times, an embarrassing distraction. There’s not enough of them to really give the sense of the bustling city that they are meant to provide, plus the moving video walls have already set the urban scene sufficiently, yet they keep on returning to give routine after routine which became excruciating for me. Yet it gets worse, at the point at which they dress up as old ghosts to provide backing for a tap number which an old ghost sings to Sam, right after his devastating death, shattering the poignancy of the moment.

Fortunately, the second half feels creatively much tighter and ultimately becomes quite moving. It is a very intimate story at heart and when the show remembers this, as it does in the final half-hour, it becomes something close to special. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until December 2012

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