Thursday, January 16, 2014

'Ghost' Isn't Quite Ghastly, but I Still Say "Boo" -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Ghost: the Musical
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 19

It's like deja boo all over again.

In the fall of 2011, I did a stint as a proofreader at a downtown Chicago ad agency specializing in retail sales circulars. When the assignment ended at Thanksgiving, I took advantage of my friend Paolo having been sent to London for work and put up in a corporate flat he said I could share.

So thanks also to my frequent flyer miles, I went to London (and also Paris) on the cheap, and while Paolo's days were spent working, at night we frequented West End theaters. We saw Michael Jackson's Thriller Live, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and Ghost: The Musical.

At the time, Ghost was rather new in London—and yet to arrive on Broadway for an abbreviated run—and while the reviews I saw weren't glowing, they also weren't quite awful.

I can't say either Paolo or I were devotees of the movie Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, but it was a rather popular and somewhat storied film. So although there was another new musical in London—Matilda—that was garnering great reviews, the allure of the movie and seemingly passable reviews led us to buy discount TKTS for Ghost on what was my last night in London.

As soon as the lights came up for intermission, Paolo turned to me and said, “This is the worst musical I've ever seen.”

I couldn't disagree.

Cut to January 2014. For the last several months, I have been working at the same ad agency I was at in
late 2011. It is again a freelance proofreading stint, but has lasted a bit longer this time. And on Wednesday night, Paolo and I (and our friend Sarah) again saw Ghost, as a national tour of the poorly reviewed and quickly shuttered Broadway version.

Photo credits: Joan Marcus
And at intermission, Paolo turned to me and said, "This is still the worst musical I've ever seen." 

To be fair, although I can't readily think of a musical I thought was worse—perhaps Blood Brothers, which both Paolo and I despised on separate viewings in London—neither he, Sarah or I felt Ghost was unwatchable, leave-at-intermission bad.

It is a lousy musical, and all the more disappointing due to the pedigree of its creatives—Ghost movie screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin wrote the book and some lyrics; the music & lyrics are credited to Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and schmaltz-pop tunesmith Glen Ballard; the show has been directed since its London debut by noted British director Matthew Warchus, whose credits include the wondrous Matilda, which I saw while in London in 2013—but in an acute sense, Ghost wasn't awful to the point of making me angry.

There is no real depth or soul to any of the material onstage, but the performances from the non-Equity touring cast at Chicago's glorious Oriental Theatre were earnest, if not exceptional.

Katie Postotnik who plays Molly, the Demi Moore role from the film, is rather attractive and likable, and while her voice doesn't quite seem to have the tenor and timbre of a Broadway star, the songs she is given to sing don't do her vocals any favors.

In a show where the songwriting largely seems facile, the worst culprits are probably Molly's solo numbers. It's a shame that Stewart (who helped pen "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" and other Eurythmics hits) and Ballard (co-writer of such hits as “Man in the Mirror” for Michael Jackson, “Hold On” for Wilson Phillips and “You Oughta Know” for Alanis Morrissette) couldn't produce more distinctive songs about sorrow and perseverance than the bland “With You” and “Nothing Stops Another Day,” respectively.

I would suggest that on some subversive evening, Postotnik substitute the Sondheim chestnuts “Losing My Mind” and “Not a Day Goes By” for the two tunes mentioned above, if only to see how it feels to sing songs that insightfully convey emotions, rather than merely reference them.

Complementing Postotnik is Steven Grant Douglas, sufficient but nothing special as Sam, the Patrick Swayze character. Granted, I was sitting way up in the balcony, but he didn't seem to bring anything distinctive to the role.

Nor for that matter did Robby Haltiwanger as his friend, Carl, who—well, I won't ruin a 24-year-old movie or even its miserly stage musical. But his smarm seemed to be lacking the proper amount of pretentious slickness.

As psychic Otta Mae Brown, the role that won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar, Carla R. Stewart is rather fun, though pretty much acts exactly as you'd expect her too and veers to the edge of racist caricature. But if her songs were a bit better, she could really be the standout in this show.

Which is kind of like being the prize winning Shar Pei in an ugly dog contest.

But while Ghost the Musical is pretty much a dog of a show—and this review is actually kind compared to the bashing Chris Jones bestowed in the Chicago Tribune—it does have some interesting new tricks.

Echoing the world premiere London production, this version of Ghost uses more videography than any
musical I've seen, largely to establish scenery on the streets and subways of New York City.

Though at times, the video backdrops seem cheesy—and cheapen the experience of seeing live theater in a large downtown venue for up to $100 for prime seats; fortunately as subscribers, we paid about a tenth of that—but there were times when the videography was rather ingenious, particularly when it evoked a New York subway car in motion.

So while I wouldn't really recommend it to anyone—even readily-available discount tickets on HotTix will set you back over $50 including fees—Ghost isn't a complete abomination from beginning to end; it's just subpar, with even the movie's famed pottery scene being oddly short-circuited.

But the non-Equity touring cast doesn't make the show seem any worse than I recall it in London, and there's certainly nothing about the efforts of anyone onstage that I would criticize.

It's not even impossible to perceive that occasional theatergoers with non-discriminating tastes might even adequately enjoy Ghost the Musical (though I also imagine those who love the movie might not want to mess with their recollect).

But as for Paolo and me, we're still haunted.

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