Monday, April 23, 2012

Ghost, the Musical

"Ghost, the Musical" at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, April 20, 2012

Yes, another Whoopi Goldberg film has made its way onto the stage, landing at the Lunt-Fontanne laden with scads of sparkling, flashy lights and some remarkably clever stagecraft.  Yet, like its predecessors (The Color Purple, and Sister Act), the results are mixed at best.  (Full disclosure, I did not see The Color Purple.

Bruce Joel Rubin's cursory book remains true to the film, telling the story of Sam (Richard Fleeshman) and Molly (Caissie Levy), young lovers parted by Sam's murder at the hands of a hired thug.  Unable to move "into the light" Sam eventually connects with Oda Mae (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), a two-bit psychic with heretofore unrealized abilities.

But you all know the story.  And there are no variations offered here, though a couple of plot points have been streamlined for time.

The quite hunky Mr. Fleeshman sings nicely as Sam, but seems to withhold his chemistry with Ms. Levy until well after his character is dead.  Ms. Levy's Molly fulfills her obligations, but comes up a little short.  Bryce Pinkham's Carl brings the strongest physical resemblance to his film counterpart, but fails to convey his attraction to Molly sufficiently.  Ms. Randolph finds the most success as Oda Mae.  She plays the role much more broadly than her predecessor, but in 1500-seat  Lunt-Fontanne, that's what's called for.

Director Matthew Warchus' staging raised a question or two for me.  In the penultimate number, the reprise of "Unchained Melody," neither Sam's nor Molly's face are visible.  If ever there were a time to show some emotion, that was it.  The rest came off a bit perfunctory.

Ashley Wallen's choreography adds little and reminds me very much of the scene transitions from 2010's short-lived Enron, when combined with the John Driscoll's video and projection design.  Not to minimize the impact of the video and projections, those added significantly to the visual.  The subway scenes worked especially well.

The score is serviceable, if bland, filled with more than the requisite number of power ballads, courtesy of Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard.  I would have liked more integration of score and book, with the music serving to expand character more often than not, rather than add to the storytelling.  I think there was a missed musical opportunity for something really interesting and fun when Oda Mae first shows up at Molly's to warn her.  It all felt just a little too safe.

Where this show satisfies are the visual effects.  Some are things you've probably seen before, but others are remarkably well done, particularly Sam's first time passing through a closed door.  The final effect is also noteworthy as Sam moves from this world to the next.  Kudos to Paul Kieve for his efforts.  (I'm guessing there's no Tony category for Best Stage Illusions.)

Ghost the Musical is on an open run.  Get tickets here.


"Macbeth" presented by Aquila Theatre at Gym at Judson, April 21, 2012

I first encountered Aquila when the company was in residence at the University of South Carolina.  Their approach to theatre was one of minimal production values but highly clever direction and staging.  Their production of The Iliad was eye-opening as they created the Argo using only a half dozen 6 foot poles. Aquila moved to New York in 1999 and has produced here regularly along with national tours and international performances. 

Their latest offering is the Bard's Scottish play, performed with a cast of nine on a bare stage at the spartan Gym at Judson.  Director Desiree Sanchez has the actors doubling and occasionally tripling roles, and for the most part, it works very well.  Working with Peter Meineck's elegant light plot, the stage is divided like a chess board.  Though Ms. Sanchez declines to overwork the concept of a chess match, she does exercise the squares of light to clearly define a sense of location.

Guy Oliver-Watts in the title role reflects his training, conveying a Macbeth of manic mood swings.  From time to time, his rubber-faced reactions undercut his intensity.  As his scheming bride, Rebecca Reaney plays the mood swings with a bit more success, immediately ambitious upon Macbeth's first success and quick to turn to darkness to achieve her aims.  Most successful in the cast was Peter F. Gardiner, primarily as Banquo, but giving nice turns in several other supporting roles.  Aaron McDaniel is a bit over-earnest as Malcolm, but with that head of gorgeous hair, it's an easy sin to forgive. Rachael Barrington stumbles in the male role of Rosse, but redeems herself as a bitter and frightened Lady Macduff.

It's a solid production, but lacks the clever and interesting staging I've seen from Aquila before.  Hopefully, they will get back to that with their next production.  Macbeth runs through May 6, 2012.  Get tickets here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


"Once" at Jacobs Theatre, March 8, 14 and 28, 2012

(Photos: Joan Marcus)

It's been a couple of years since I've seen a show multiple times.  The last was Lincoln Center's sweeping revival of South Pacific, which I saw once in previews, once mid-run, and the closing performance. The beauty and romance of that show is very different from Once, based on the 2006 movie of the same title.

After a successful run off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop, Once has moved uptown for what I hope will be a lengthy run. It brings its own sense of romance, intimate and touching, while hunkered down in a Dublin pub.  Each of its characters are searching for his or her respective place in the world.

Leading the quest are the generically, yet conspicuously named Guy (Steve Kazee) and Girl (Cristin Milioti).  He, a vaccuum repairman and frustrated musician, is foundering after having his heart broken by a recently emigrated girlfriend; she, by an estranged husband who has returned to their native Czech Republic.  She encounters Guy at the pub and is immediately drawn to him, sensing his despair, and manages to turn him to his music to resolve his pain.  The spark between them smolders slowly as each convinces themselves of reasons to stay apart.  She sees his departed girlfriend as first love unresolved, which would forever be a barrier between them.

Sharing his musical instincts, Girl convinces Guy to record a demo album, take it to New York, get his girlfriend back and live happily ever after. She arranges the financing and the backup musicians, mostly her ragtag Czech housemates to make the recording.  I'll skip the rest to avoid a spoil.

Mr. Kazee finds himself in an most suitable role for his talent, far exceeding his performance in 2007's 110 in the Shade.  As Guy, he hesitates and demures at Girl's initial bossy insistence that he pursue both his music and his lost love.  When he sings, his broken heart virtually pounds with raw and visceral emotion.  We clearly see him struggle as the songs he wrote for one woman take on another meaning as he recognizes his feelings for a potential new love.  It's a powerful, honest performance.

Ms. Milioti's captures the direct, no-nonsensibilty of the Czech emigre. After hearing his music, she says, "You are like Mendelssohn, except you are alive...and Irish."  She is surprised to be caught up in her feelings for Guy, yet pushes him away for what she believes is his own good.  Her most touching moment comes when Guy asks her how to ask in Czech if she still loves her husband.  After he parrots her words to repeat the question, she answers, also in Czech which he won't understand, "I love you."

The book for Once, by Enda Walsh, expands the backstories and provides clearer exposition unfolding this story.  Director John Tiffany's delicate direction woven with Steven Hoggett's movement balance an otherwise eclectic mix of characters into a cohesive ensemble. The mostly diegetic score, has been expanded from the original movie, by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.  Bob Crowley's scenic and costume design clearly delineates character and settings, working seamlessly with Natasha Katz' lighting.  The twinkling light effect for the hillside scene is quite clever.

I have to say, though I liked the original movie, it didn't move me like the stage version.  I think the heightened theatricality, combined with Mr. Kazee's and Ms. Milioti's tender performances are what generates the passion in the theatre.