Movie musicals are never a sure thing, whether speaking in artistic or commercial terms.
In recent years, Billy Elliot and Once have been among the strongest examples of films that have been successfully translated for the stage, thanks to skilful direction, wonderfully written scores and truly inventive staging and contemporary choreographic choices. At the other end of the scale, the screen version of An officer and a gentleman was a box office success, but its live sibling spectacularly failed in front of a live audience, closing just six weeks after its Sydney premiere.
So the hit-and-miss reality of movie musicals means many theatregoers and reviewers alike will approach the Australian premiere of Ghost: The Musical with a degree of scepticism. It’s another staging of a film, but it’s also an endeavour to bring to life a movie much loved by film fans the world over since its release 25 years ago. Not only did Ghost make some serious cash back in the day, but found itself the recipient of five Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture. Whoopi Goldberg ended up taking home the trophy for Best Supporting Actress while Bruce Joel Rubin won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
In other words, Ghost has its fair share of fans – in and outside of the Academy – ready to pull it apart and highlight any detail perceived to do an injustice to the original work, be it the cast, the staging or otherwise.
So what’s the verdict on Ghost: The Musical? The show’s tagline compels its audiences to ‘believe’. But the burning issue is whether this is actually a show worth believing in.
The short answer is that, yes, it is. While it may not reach the dizzying heights of some of the world’s most successful movie-to-musical transformations, it certainly sits closer to the higher end of the spectrum. It works as a live theatrical presentation.
There are many reasons for that. Bruce Joel Rubin was tasked with bringing his Oscar-winning screenplay to the stage, ensuring that the book remains true to the film’s narrative. For those unfamiliar with Ghost, it tells the story of Sam Wheat (Rob Mills), a New York banker killed in a bungled robbery attempt, who is determined to see the perpetrators bought to justice for taking his life, but forced to influence those events using the limited powers he has in the next life. Lovers of Ghost will find themselves able to recite much of the musical’s dialogue. It’s not exceptional storytelling, or even an exceptional story, but it’s well structured and filled with enough peaks and troughs to make it just as engaging on stage as on screen.
Of course, if the music’s no good, that’s the end of the story. You cannot have a good musical without good music (certainly, an obstacle An officer and a gentleman was unable to overcome). The good news is that Ghost: The Musical’s pop-rock score delivers as it must. Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard composed its music and lyrics. Stewart is a highly accomplished and widely respected musician and producer, best known as Annie Lennox’s Eurythmics partner. Ballard is a multi-Grammy Award-winning producer and songwriter who, among his successes, can count co-writing and producing Alanis Morissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’ album.
The score effectively evokes a strong sense of Ghost’s two worlds – the physical and the supernatural. It’s filmic and atmospheric in parts, upbeat and infused with some great work on the electric guitar at times, and even veers into gospel choral territory. But while it touches upon a variety of genres, Stewart and Ballard have created a richly melodic and cohesive score that sees one musical moment flowing logically into the next. Nothing jars in the score. It never feels hotchpotch (see King Kong Live on Stage).
Stewart and Ballard’s music also ensures key emotional moments are underscored appropriately, without swerving into dangerous sickly saccharine territory. Some more hardened cynics may beg to differ, but from the perspective of this reviewer, the score remained on the right side of the line.
On stage, the score is done total justice by a strong cast. As banker Sam Wheat, Mills gives us his finest musical theatre performance to date. It’s taken a long time for Mills to obtain the recognition he deserves in this arena, and it’s with this performance that he should silence his toughest critics. The pop rock vocals in Ghost constitute a tough sing, and it’s evident Mills has worked hard to prove he’s the man for the job. His notes are delivered with the required power, and longer notes never feel strained. He’s particularly impressive in ‘Suspend my disbelief/I had a life’, the Act I climax. That requires nothing less than a strong and gusty vocal, and Mills achieves that in his opening night performance. On the acting side, his choices work. He convinces as Sam.
It should come as no surprise that Mills’ chemistry with Jemma Rix, his Wicked co-star of two years, is strong. It similarly shouldn’t surprise that Rix is also a success in Ghost. After portraying Elphaba in Wicked for seven years, Rix left us in no doubt of the fact she’s a world-class performer. As Molly Jensen, her gorgeous, crystal clear tone is, once again, a joy to listen to. Her ability to convey emotion through song is also impressive, particularly in ‘With you’, a moving ballad in which Molly mourns the loss of her partner. But her standout vocal moment comes in ‘Rain/Hold on’ which, coming right at the start of Act II, ensures anyone attempting a confectionary unwrapping task is well and truly distracted from that process. Rix is wonderful on stage. It’s as simple as that. The emotion conveyed through her characterisation makes you believe that Molly’s loss is real.
Wendy Mae Brown, an English import, makes it spectacularly clear why the decision was made to bring her down from the top of the world for Ghost’s Australian premiere. Brown (not to be confused with her eccentric psychic character, Oda Mae Brown) is a constant scene stealer, spitting out pearlers continuously, and doing so with impeccable comedic timing. There’s no question we have an abundance of talent in this country, but there are some performances seen on overseas stages that Australian audiences should also have the chance to enjoy. Brown’s performance here certainly falls into that category. The opening night audience was extremely responsive, reserving some of its most rapturous applause for Brown at curtain call.
Alex Rathgeber is well cast as Sam’s friend and colleague, Carl Bruner. Ross Chisari makes a strong impact as villain, Willie Lopez, and David Denis is genuinely scary in his portrayal of the subway ghost, who ultimately teaches Sam the art of manipulating objects in the physical world.
But arguably the biggest star attraction of Ghost: The Musical is its special effects – its key point of difference from other productions currently on our stages. What illusionist Paul Kieve achieves here astounds. Without giving any specifics away, the effects Kieve has created give the show some real ‘wow’ factor. An exceptional lighting design from Hugh Vanstone ensures each illusion is realised to full effect. Vanstone’s lighting also works to perfection with Jon Driscoll’s extensive video and projection content.
Ghost: The Musical should provide director Matthew Warchus his second musical hit on our shores (he’s also at the helm of the outstanding Matilda). It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable night at the theatre and deserves to have theatregoers around the country suspending their own disbelief.
Ghost: The Musical is currently playing at Adelaide’s Festival Theatre. It will tour Melbourne from February, Sydney from March and Perth from May. For more details, visit www.ghostthemusical.com.au.