“Sometimes you need to hear it Sam”
Given the fortunes of its replacement at the Piccadilly Theatre, the 15 month West End run of Ghost the musical doesn’t seem too bad at all in the end. Based on the famous 1990 film with book by Bruce Joel Rubin and music from Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, the story of psychics, possession and pottery certainly looked impressive in Matthew Warchus’ cinematically flash production but this wasn’t always enough to overcome the shortcomings of its adaptation. But it was a show that intrigued and one that I came to like quite a lot (I saw it twice – reviews can be read here and here but the first review of the show on here, from its original Manchester run, comes courtesy of my father!) and so I was certainly intrigued to catch it at the New Wimbledon Theatre as it sets out on a major UK tour.
The main difference comes with the blessed removal of the heinous song and dance routine ‘Ball of Wax’. I’m not sure that tap dancing ghosts have any place in the world but they really stood out like a sore thumb in the original show with their misguided appearance coming at an appallingly bad time, right after Sam’s death and shattering any poignancy that might have been built up. Now, we get a much mellower song called ‘You Gotta Let Go’ (first introduced on Broadway) which serves the same purpose of getting him acquainted with his new status in the afterlife. Other changes are subtler and by and large, the show feels rather akin to its West End predecessor.
Which means the structural issues of the story remain. Between setting up the story of the enduring romance with all its travails and the third-wheel presence of Carl, there’s not really enough time spent on Sam and Molly’s relationship before it is ended – on this plain at least – to really make us buy into the strength of their love and keep us invested in their fate. Without the background of the film, it just wouldn’t stand up as a conceit and it would take an extraordinarily gifted actor in the role of Sam to make it work.
Stewart Clarke sounds like a dream and certainly looks the part with his ripped abs but never quite manages to elevate the part in the way that is required and to be honest, I don’t think any of the actors I have seen cover the role have really solved this inherent weakness. But Rebecca Trehearn as Molly, who understudied the role in the West End, plays the emotional centre of the play with passion and grace as she struggles to work through her uncomprehending grief and her glorious vocal is well suited to the powerhouse ballads like the gorgeous ‘With You’.
And in the other key role, Wendy Mae Brown’s Oda Mae Brown is a vivacious treat, Whoopi Goldberg memorably won an Oscar for her turn in the film, and her arrival is a much-needed shot in the arm for the first act and an amusing highlight of the second. But it is hard to shake the feeling that many of the ensemble scenes, with their slo-mo choreography from Ashley Wallen, are a tad extraneous – the representations of hectic urban life add little of real benefit to the show, although they do interact extremely well with John Driscoll’s video and projection work which in turn mesh well with Rob Howell’s expertly fast-changing set and Paul Kieve’s nifty illusion work.
Everything combines well in the end though to make a spectacle of good musical theatre but at its heart, I suspect Ghost is an excellent intimate chamber piece in the making and so I look forward to a revival in a few years’ time at one of London’s more bijou houses which might play more on its strengths. And for me this is mainly Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard’s score, full of rousing numbers like the storming Act 1 closer, tender moments like ‘Here Right Now’ and lovely interpolations of the famous ‘Unchained Melody’ theme, most notably in the beautifully affecting final moments. A cut above your usual film-to-stage adaptations, this is not a Ghost to be scared of.