What do you do when the musical you’ve produced ends up flopping on The Great White Way, but has enough going for it to merit a post-Broadway National Tour?
One possible solution is to mount a cost-saving non-union tour, and hope that even without an Equity cast and budget, whatever magic brought the show to Opening Night on Broadway will somehow survive.
In the case of Ghost The Musical, now playing at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts, the magic mostly does.
Broadway producers had ample reason to bank on Ghost’s success when it opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in March of 2012. It was based on a smash hit movie (and if you haven’t seen Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in the film’s iconic potter’s wheel scene, what kind of rock have you been living under since 1990?). In addition, Ghost The Musical had been running in London’s West End for almost a year, its original Sam and Molly were making the leap across the pond to New York, and though London reviews had been mixed, hopes were high that the musical’s proven love story and some ingenious special effects would make for a Broadway hit.
Ghost The Musical lasted all of 175 performances (including previews), not enough to merit a big-budget Equity Tour like Book Of Mormon and Jersey Boys (the two tours most recently at the Segerstrom) but enough to inspire a non-union tour, the best of which, like the recent non-Eq Mamma Mia and last year’s Catch Me If You Can, can come across as almost indistinguishable from their Equity counterparts.
Ghost The Musical isn’t quite in that league, but a) its trio of very young leads show career promise and it’s got one spectacular supporting performance to boot; b) its book (by the show’s lyricist Bruce Joel Rubin) sticks close to Rubin’s 1990 screenplay and its catchy pop score by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard gets supplemented by “Unchained Melody” (since if it weren’t, movie fans would surely revolt); and c) it showcases snappy choreography by Ashley Wallen, special effects that can provoke oohs and aahs even if simplified for touring, and an exciting production design featuring a possibly record-breaking number of CGI and video effects.
You must know the story by now. 20something banker Sam Wheat (Steven Grant Douglas on tour) and his sculptor girlfriend Molly Jensen (Katie Postotnik) would be the perfect couple if Sam could only manage to tell Molly “I love you” instead of the euphemistic “Ditto” he opts for whenever she says those Three Little Words to him.
Sam’s career in finance is beginning to yield monetary rewards, Molly’s as a sculptor seems to be heading in the right direction as well, and their best-friendship with Sam’s work colleague Carl Bruner (Robby Haltiwanger) is icing on the cake.
Then, on the very evening he discovers some puzzling account discrepancies (which Carl promises to look into), Sam is murdered by a mugger named Willie Lopez (Fernando Contreras) who is intent on getting not only Sam’s money but his wallet as well.
(Apologies for the above semi-spoiler, but if by some bizarre chance you haven’t seen the movie or heard its basic plot point, the musical’s title is a dead giveaway.)
Enter Oda Mae Brown (Carla R. Stewart), the “psychic” whom the now deceased Sam seeks out when he discovers Willie has broken into the apartment he shared with Molly and which she still calls home.
Sam quickly realizes that Oda Mae is as fake as a phony psychic can get, and when he tells her so in no uncertain terms, wonder of wonders, Oda Mae realizes that she can hear him!
A lightbulb then goes off atop Sam’s head:
He can use the now authentically psychic Oda Mae to warn Molly that her life is in danger … if only the bereaved damsel in distress can (cue the movie’s tagline) BELIEVE.
An Equity tour would doubtless star a quintet of Broadway, off-Broadway or Equity Tour vets as Ghost’s five major players. Naturally this is a legal no-no for a non-union tour, though as anyone who knows anything about the multitude of Musical Theater BFA programs across the land, this does not mean there will be a dearth of talent in the cast, many of whom are sure to join Equity within the next few years.
Ghost The Musical’s touring cast are definitely helped in that direction by associate directors Thomas Caruso and Paul Warwick Griffin (and original UK/Broadway director Matthew Warchus).
Tall, lanky, handsome, sexy, and talented, Douglas in particular has leading man stamped all over him, and while Postotnik’s Alanis Morissette vocals aren’t quite the Broadway-style pipes Molly’s songs cry out for (and can become strident when reaching for high notes), she’s got an innate likeability and darned good acting chops, and despite an awkward one-foot height disparity between the two leads, Douglas and Postotnik have authentic romantic chemistry. Boy-next-door charmer Haltiwanger shows considerable promise as well though the 2013 college grad is probably too young to play Carl professionally … yet. Contreras makes for a darkly dangerous Willie, Brandon Curry does electric work as the Subway Ghost who reluctantly instructs Sam in How To Move Objects, and Evette Marie White and Lydia Warr are hilarious hoots as Oda Mae’s helpmates.
Most spectacular of all, and the only performer who could play her part on Broadway even as I type this, is the scene-stealing Stewart in the role that won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar, a part the Chicago native makes very much her own (while paying tribute to Goldberg) and her Act Two solo, “I’m Outta Here” is a bona fide show-stopper that earns Stewart justified cheers.
To this reviewer’s eyes, Ghost The Musical’s triple-threat ensemble members—Hana Freeman (Mrs. Santiago), swing/dance captain Susan Leilani Gearou, Shannan E. Johnson (Ortisha), swing/assistant dance captain Tony Johnson, Beth Stafford Laird, Andrea Laxton, Ben Laxton, Jake Vander Linden, Michael McClure, David Melendez, Jack O’Brien, and Maria Cristina Slye—are every bit as talented as those you’d see in an Equity tour, and choreographer Wallen gives them some exciting dance steps which, in combination with the animated dancers in Jon Driscoll’s innovatively original video and projection design, communicate the high-energy excitement of The Manhattan Lifestyle.
At a mere seven musicians, Ghost The Musical’s touring orchestra is quite a few pieces smaller than an Equity Tour contract would mandate, but with SoCal’s very own whiz-kid musical director Matthew Smedal conducting and playing keyboards, they make the most of their reduced numbers.
Paul Kieve’s illusions seem likely to have been simplified for touring (the walking-through-a-door-bit will be obvious unless you’re sitting way far back) but feats of levitation are likely to provoke a “How did they do that?” reaction. Numerous assistant designers appear to have taken over on tour for at least some of the original UK/Broadway team made up of scenic/costume designer Rob Howell, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, and sound designer Bobby Aitkin. (Howell’s name is curiously absent from program credits, making one wonder if this is by his own choice.) Donavan Dolan is production stage manager.
The words “Non-Equity Tour” can provoke strong reactions. Not surprisingly, union members decry their lower salaries and scaled-down orchestras and production values, and since ticket prices may be every bit as steep as for higher-budget Equity tours, the question arises, “Are audiences getting less bang for their bucks?”
By the same token, non-Eq tours provide talent showcases for fresh, young performers, many of whom have major professional careers ahead. (Broadway stars Mara Davi and Kyle Dean Massey were 42nd Street’s non-Equity leads and Stephen Anthony and Merritt David Janes, the Scenie-winning stars of Catch Me If You Can, have since gone Equity, the former now on Broadway in The Book Of Mormon and the latter appearing in the brand new Phantom Of The Opera National Tour.)
Both points of view apply to Ghost The Musical, however given the choice between a non-Equity tour and No Tour At All, this reviewer is glad to have been offered the former.
Ghost The Musical On Tour may not be at the level of Ghost The Musical On Broadway, but it still got to me. Bring plenty of Kleenex. You will need them.
Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
July 29, 2014
Photos: Joan Marcus