Love it or hate it, the trend of adapting stage musicals from hit films isn’t leaving Broadway any time soon – a musical adaptation of “Pretty Woman” is in the works now. Sometimes it works beautifully – the smash hit comedy “Legally Blonde” is arguably an even better musical (thanks largely to incredibly catchy and heartfelt songs by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin) than film, and the wistful musical romance “Once” has taken a charming, small film and turned it to a powerful live experience (currently featuring Louisville native Adam Brown on Broadway, too!).
Both of those stories are transformed significantly by the addition of song and dance, which means there were artistic reasons (aside from business reasons) to adapt them for the stage.
Currently on its American tour, another film-to-stage adaptation, “Ghost: the Musical,” opened yesterday and runs through Sunday in the Broadway in Louisville series at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts’ Whitney Hall.
With book and lyrics by original film screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, and music and lyrics by the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart and Grammy Award-winner Glen Ballard, “Ghost: the Musical” is adapted from the 1990 hit romantic film about a dead man who solves his own murder and saves his girlfriend with the help of a psychic medium.
Banker Sam (Steven Grant Douglas) moves into a Brooklyn loft with sculptor Molly (Katie Postotnik), then he’s shot and killed in a mugging gone wrong. Instead of transporting to one of two afterlife options (yellow means heaven, red means hell), Sam is stuck on earth as a ghost until he finishes some important business. Soon he discovers that his murder wasn’t random, and he seeks out fake – but now real! – psychic Oda Mae (Carla R. Stewart) to help him communicate with Molly and his best friend Carl (Robby Haltiwanger).
Patrick Swayze (Sam) and Demi Moore (Molly) were an iconic early ‘90s on-screen couple, as the many parodies of their pottery wheel love scene set to the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” can attest. If you loved the original film, you won’t be disappointed by “Ghost: the Musical.”
But you also won’t be surprised, and the bland pop ballads that pepper the familiar plotline probably won’t inspire anyone’s early Broadway-bound dreams. This musical re-creates the film experience so faithfully that the majority of the music feels superfluous to the story, but the video projections (Jon Driscoll) and special effects (Paul Kieve) necessary to achieve that re-creation are truly impressive.
From the skyline and crowd scenes of New York to the subway cars where Sam learns how to move objects and open doors with the power of his emotions, this show significantly raises the bar on what can be achieved through video projection on stage. And Sam himself is lit differently after he passes to the other side, a subtle yet very effective move.
The question then becomes: to what end? Adaptations should offer a fresh and interesting take on the source material. Otherwise, why not just Netflix the movie in your jammies? Film and theater use different languages, and attempting to re-create a film experience in a musical on stage creates instead a strange hybrid, more like a series of music videos connected by dialog and action scenes than a cohesive musical. And musicals that seem to studiously avoid juicy production numbers or fully integrating dance into the story feel like musicals for (or by) people who don’t really like musicals. In this show, Ashley Wallen’s choreography is employed mostly in stilted crowd scenes that make poor use of a talented ensemble.
But there are bright spots. The comic role of Oda Mae earned Whoopi Goldberg an Academy Award for best supporting actress in the film (which also netted Rubin an Oscar for best original screenplay) and in this production, Stewart shines as the outré pseudo-psychic with a criminal past who, thanks to Sam, discovers she did inherit the family psychic powers after all.
In fact, I’d support a re-thinking of “Ghost” that places more of the emphasis on Oda Mae and less on the love story between Molly and Sam, who has a difficult time articulating “I love you” (preferring, as fans of the film know by heart, to say “ditto” in return). Indeed, maybe a campier, more flamboyant approach to this sincere, straightforward love/ditto story would have livened it up considerably. “Ghost: a Puppet Story” or even “Naked Gun: the Musical” (after my favorite pottery wheel parody – producers, call me!) might take more liberties with the source material, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. Familiar names get people through the door, but art which offers surprise and delight will keep them coming back for seconds and thirds.