Ghost: the Musical presented by the Hennepin Theater Trust at the Orpheum Theater

Ghost the MusicalThe Hennepin Theater Trust brings a new Broadway production of a successful and acclaimed film, reincarnated for live theater as “Ghost: the Musical.” If you’d love to see just what technical marvels are possible on the live stage, this is your show. If you love musicals for a well-crafted story, uplifting music and clever lyrics, this is not a great fit.

The opening night crowd, however, was enthusiastic. With Minnesota native Steven Grant Douglas in the starring role of Sam Wheat, there were no doubt a cadre of hometown supporters on hand to share in his impressive coup: a Broadway touring production fresh out of college in Duluth. Douglas is talented, and he has a voice that’s as rich as smooth as a chocolate fountain. Was he ready for this one? It’s a close call. With better material (and the director would have had a similar advantage) he might have blown us away.

Katie Postotnik as Molly, the woman he loves, shows more mature acting chops, and with a powerful voice and natural charm, she’s one to watch. It was a pleasure to see her deftly transcend her lines. “What’s the matter?” she says. Why does she say this? I guess because Sam is staring out (into the balcony). Why is he staring out (into the balcony)? Because everything is so perfect. Ah. So now we know that her life must be upended.

Here’s the fundamental dilemma with doing a stage version of “Ghost:” What are you going to have the protagonist do when he can’t interact with anyone? The plot needs to move forward but the main character is either standing around watching something happen or yelling at people – repeatedly – who can’t hear him because he’s dead. That can work for a scene or two, but then you have to do something else.

In the case of this production, the something else is really something else: high-level illusionist trickery that is impressive. Who isn’t captivated by people levitating and walking through walls? The spectacle is one-of-a-kind – it truly is – I can’t begin to describe it all. But you might get antsy waiting for the next bit of  magic.

Douglas is tasked with sustaining a character on stage when the movie version had the advantage of choosing precisely when we should watch him. The most awkward scene for him came at the most inopportune time: when he learns the truth about his own death. This reveal sets the plot in motion and couldn’t be more pivotal. In a more believable scenario, once Sam knew, he would react immediately, but as written, the poor actor has to maintain a tense posture as he (and the audience) was told what happened via a phone call. Even a good director couldn’t do much with that.

Eventually, he stumbles upon the psychic, Oda Mae Brown (Carla R. Stewart) who can hear him. This is one of the reasons that the scenes between them are so engaging. Stewart plays the lovable scamp with gusto, but Stewart’s Oda Mae is an entertaining caricature, rather the real person created by Whoopi Goldberg in the movie version. Still, with a set of pipes that‘ll knock your socks off and a smart sense of comic timing, she deserves the love she gets from the audience every time she shows up on stage.

Well into Act II, Sam acquires poltergeist powers- creating more opportunities to wow the crowd – but in the meantime, he’s on stage with the audience looking at him looking awkward, or he’s upstaged by Oda Mae, or he’s getting tossed around by a very unfriendly ghost who screams all his lines.

Meanwhile Molly is left to sing about how he took everything away “With You” and look forlorn while being stalked by killers.

This has a pretty short list of musical numbers for a full-blown Broadway show.  Sadly, the songs are mostly made up of cliché’d lyrics, convenient and sloppy rhymes and borrowed snippets of melodies. Alongside the pop standard “Unchained Melody,” in its various iterations throughout the show, the songs mostly drew attention to themselves for their mediocrity. Running a meaningful musical motif though a musical, generally speaking, is a solid technique, but in this case “Unchained Melody” was a regular reminder of how the other songs didn’t measure up.

One exception: Sam and Molly sing “Three Little Words,” while not a lyric-writing masterpiece, has a lovely melody and (more to the point) it’s a song that says what needs to be said at that moment in the show.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with the story or its appealing theme. The problem was in its treatment for the stage; its structure and dialog belonged on a live stage about as much as a tricycle on the freeway.

It didn’t help that the sound mix was full of unnecessarily unpleasant frequencies, and there were times when the instrumentals so overpowered the vocals that it was impossible to understand what they were saying.

But if the spectacle is worth it for you, then go and enjoy. You’re not going to see many shows like this. “Ghost: the Musical” runs through June 23.

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