Ghost the Musical

Book and lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin, music and lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard
Opera House, Manchester
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One of the biggest-hyped shows to hit Manchester for many years is the new musical based on the 1990 hit Hollywood film Ghost, brought to the stage by the original screenplay writer Bruce Joel Rubin with leading rock and pop artists, writers and producers Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard.

This supernatural romance, originally starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze on screen, begins by building up an almost-perfect love affair between artist Molly Jensen and Sam Wheat who works in the world of high finance with their friend Carl Bruner. Just as they are settling into their new apartment in Brooklyn, the couple is accosted on the street by a mugger and Sam is killed, but he sticks around as a ghost. When he finds out that his death was no random event and that someone they know was involved, he is unable to warn Molly about the danger she is in until he comes across Oda Mae Brown, a fake medium who, to her own surprise, really can hear the voices of the dead.

The story is a classic Hollywood weepy that transfers well to the musical stage in the main, although the first half, when Sam dies, is curiously unemotional; the ending, however does have a few moments that are calculated to bring a lump to the throat. The songs aren't particularly memorable, apart from the old classic Unchained Melody which was a famous part of the film and is incorporated very well into the score here. The music gives the piece atmosphere and energy in all the right places and there is plenty of variety of style. However the lyrics are often rather banal with no more depth than an average pop lyric and some very obvious rhymes you can see coming a mile off.

The stars pull off true star performances, with the superb Caissie Levy breathing real life into the role of Molly and a great performance from Richard Fleeshman as Sam, plus a great comic performance from Sharon D Clarke as Oda Mae Brown. There is a nicely-measured performance from Andrew Langtree as Carl, a superbly energetic and scary performance by Adebayo Bolaji as the subway ghost, a humorous performance from Mark Pearce as the hospital ghost and just the right amount of arrogant street swagger from Ivan de Freitas as mugger Willie Lopez.

The real star, though, is the production itself. Like when Tommy hit Broadway and the West End (not the much-depleted touring versions), Matthew Warchus's production is a carefully-choreographed marriage of live performance and technology that utilises both as fundamental parts of the storytelling process rather than using the technology just to decorate the show. The main walls of the set suddenly reveal themselves to be semi-transparent LED video screens that can move and split and apply all sorts of film special effects behind or even over the top of the actors, all very cleverly synchronised with the actors' moves, as well as providing realistic backdrops and more abstract pop video-style images for some of the songs and dance numbers.

This is combined cleverly with some more traditional stage magic from illusionist Paul Kieve, which is shown off at its best on the subway train as Matrix-style movement is synchronised with distortions in the train carriage on the video projections (designed by Jon Driscoll) and sound effects (sound designer Bobby Aitken) to great effect. There are some occasions when the lighting (lighting designer Hugh Vanstone) needs tweaking slightly so it doesn't show up how the tricks are done, especially in the second subway scene, but this doesn't spoil how the effects tell the story. There are some clever exchanges of actors and sometimes doubling of them, as a character is killed and then is seen both as a dead body and as an observing ghost at the same time.

So does it live up to all the hype? Well, it isn't going to join the ranks of the all-time great musicals as far as the writing is concerned, but it does work well for the most part, tells a decent story, pushes some emotional buttons and has some good humour. As a production, it looks like a show that has had a lot of money spent on it, utilising sound, lighting and video technologies from the rock concert arena that are rarely used in theatre, at least not to this extent. Fortunately Warchus and his creative team have used the technology creatively to integrate it fully into the production and make it theatrical, resulting in a show that is visually stunning.

Add to this some very good performances and here is a show that has a good chance of running for a long time on the West End. Catch Ghost the Musical now in Manchester as, if Tommy is anything to go by, the show will be a shadow of its current state in any post-West End tours.

Running until 14th May 2011

Philip Fisher reviewed this production on its transfer to the Piccadilly Theatre

Reviewer: David Chadderton