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A ghost in the sound machine hurts Hartford engagement of 'Ghost: The Musical'

'Ghost: The Musical" at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford

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After catching the national tour of “Ghost: The Musical” during its stop this week at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, one wonders how it stood the ghost of a chance of running for eight or nine months on Broadway.

Perhaps people had fond memories of the original film written by Bruce Joel Rubin and wanted to revisit the “living beyond death” love story at its heart. Maybe they enjoyed Whoopi Goldberg’s Oscar-winning performance as phony psychic Oda Mae Brown that they wanted to experience that character’s zaniness once again. Or just possibly they wanted to hear the Righteous Brothers' “Unchained Melody” just one more time.

None of these reasons can really explain why “Ghost: The Musical” was a very big hit in London or why it managed to draw audiences during the time it was in New York. Of course in London there’s a tradition of adapting motion pictures into both straight plays and musicals that become crowd pleasers. Who knows? Maybe people are just more comfortable going to something with which they are familiar so they don’t have to worry about not being able to follow what is happening on stage?

If that’s the case, then this national tour is not going to help them much. Nearly from the get go, the sound system was so deplorable that one could barely understand what was being said by the actors, despite the fact that they were so heavily miked. The crackle and strain of the mikes blended words together while other sound effects as well as the orchestra drowned out the dialogue. Just when one thought that your ears had at last accommodated whatever failures there were in the sound system, the words suddenly became garbled again or distorted because of the amplitude.

Such does not bode well especially for a musical whose score is unfamiliar to nearly all audience members. When you can’t hear what the chorus is singing, that kind of defeats the purpose of a musical. Not that Dave Stewart (of the “Eurythmics” fame) and Glen Ballard’s score is particularly complex or distinguished. The songs, with a few exceptions, all tend to sound the same, whether they are supposed to be soaring ballads or fast paced production numbers. Theirs is a contemporary score, so it can be loud, jaunty and raucous, without signifying particularly much.

Fortunately, the plot is quite familiar to fans of the film. To recap for those unfamiliar with the plot, Sam, an investment banker, and Molly, a sculptor, are in the process of moving into a loft in Brooklyn when one night they are mugged. Sam is killed as he tries to wrestle the gun away from the mugger and his ghost becomes stuck on earth even though he can follow Molly around, he cannot communicate with her. He eventually learns that pal Carl is responsible for ordering the mugging in order to obtain some access codes for accounts where Carl has hidden some ill-gotten drug money. Sam discovers that he can communicate with a totally-surprised Oda Mae and enlists her help in warning Molly and bringing Carl to justice.

The production’s leads, at least early in the show, seem to be in over their heads, partly due to the limitations of the sound system, which make it even difficult to determine which of the characters is actually speaking or singing. Luckily, one of them in the opening scenes is a woman, so at least there are cues that Katie Postotnik as Molly Jenson is the owner of the voice we are hearing. It takes a while longer to distinguish between Steven Grant Douglas as Sam Wheat (the Patrick Swayze part from the film) and Robby Haltiwanger as the ultimately villainous best pal Carl Bruner (played by “Scandal’s” POTUS Tony Goldwyn). Both Postotnik and Douglas seem to be straining their voices to accommodate the music, which is odd since their head mikes are quite visible, but I guess that’s a type of sound effect that many singers go for nowadays to show that they are really singing their hearts out while maxing their emotions.

As the evening progresses, all three actually begin to grow on you, so toward the end you are actually invested in the outcome. You can even understand why Sam reaches out to try to save the traitorous Carl when the latter is being dragged toward a hideous netherworld depicted as an ominously glowing red. Of course, they are both ghosts at that point so there is nothing to hang onto. And you realize with much regret and sadness that Molly and Sam are only going to have the most temporary of reunions before each has to move on to their new lives. So I would like to commend the actors for sticking to it and giving it their all, so that we could finally relate to them as characters we could care about.

It’s much easier to relate to Carla R. Stewart in the funny, showy role of the insincere seer, Oda Mae, who manages to dominate and essentially steal every scene in which she appears. Stewart is a short but fast moving dynamo, easily capturing Oda Mae’s oversized reactions and exaggerated explanations, to the delight of the audience. She’s a natural scenery chewer who must regret that the production relies so much upon projections and film that limits her onstage intake. She does bring some needed life to the production and a nice rapport develops between Stewart and Douglas by the middle of the second act.

Evette Marie White and Lydia Warr make an impression as Oda Mae’s oversized sisters, who join together in Gospel-influenced trios to welcome new clients to Oda Mae’s fortune telling parlor. Brandon Curry plays an irately territorial subway ghost who eventually teaches Sam how to move objects after he becomes a ghost, but because of the sound system, his crazy dialogue and the limited lighting on stage, it’s virtually impossible to understand what he is saying or doing, other than throwing things around and yelling incoherently. There are also a quartet of ghosts from various periods of time who try to help Sam adjust to his new situation and help cover some of the incongruities on stage.

Rubin, the original screenwriter, also wrote the book for the musical and he manages to include the audience’s favorite scenes into his script, most notably the famous pottery scene as Sam puts his arms around Molly as her pottery wheel spins and she can feel his presence as “Unchained Melody” belts from a nearby radio. Also included are the scene in which Sam enters the cantankerous Oda Mae’s body so he and Molly can share a physical touch.

The actual highlights of the show are several visual and magical effects. The most unexpectedly breathtaking is a subway scene that combines live actors and film projections in such a way that one can feel actual speeding momentum, especially when the subway turns a corner, the onstage set moves slightly, and we’re suddenly seeing the subway car from a new perspective. There are similar projection and set tricks as Sam’s ghost learns to walk through a door, which at one point seemed to be an actual door on the set, yet the actor Douglas has no problem ethereally walking through it. Then are those clever moments that involve distracting the audience so that it can appear that a character falls and dies, only to have the actor enter as a ghost from the other side of the stage. Commendation should go to Jon Driscoll’s videos and projections and Paul Kieve’s illusions for contributing some liveliness to the proceedings.

Ashley Wallen’s choreography consists mainly of having harried commuters running, scampering and moving around the stage, with an occasional turn toward the audience as if doing a complete dance number. There’s too much lighting and technical effects going on at virtually all times to really highlight the dancing. The award-winning British director Matthew Warchus, responsible for such London and Broadway hits as “Matilda” and “God of Carnage,” no doubt realized that he needed to cover up the relative dearth of quality with such bombastic effects and overheated action if he was going to make the evening visually arresting and seemingly worthwhile for the audience.

“Ghost: The Musical” remains amiable enough, but it is nowhere near a classic night in the theater. It remains a footnote in the musical theater canon for a reason, which is abundantly apparent through the rest of this weekend at the Bushnell.

Performances are scheduled through Sunday afternoon and evening, June 14 and 15. For tickets and information, contact the Bushnell box office at 860.987.5900 or visit the Bushnell website at www.bushnell.org.

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