It is the rare musical that isn’t transmogrified from some other plane of existence.
It is not simply a matter of finding inspiration or stories to tell. Given how mind-bogglingly expensive musicals are to produce, it helps tremendously if they have name recognition and even a built-in fan base from a prior life. This is why musicals based on movies — either animated or live-action — have become so prevalent in recent decades. Best-known are Disney’s string of monster hit musicals (from Beauty and the Beast to Frozen) — 17 of them, all told. These have the advantage of having songs ready-made, well-known, and even beloved.
But non-Disney producers who want to resurrect already-hit movies have to look farther afield, and add their own scores. Recent examples include Legally Blonde, Beetlejuice, and the forthcoming Back to the Future. Many of these combine engaging scores with good writing and top-notch talent to produce well-received and sometimes award-winning shows.
Which brings us to Ghost the Musical, currently haunting Toby’s Dinner Theater of Columbia. That the advertising and program proclaim, “Based on the hit motion picture starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopie Goldberg!” tells you exactly what the draw is for the show.
Bruce Joel Ruben wrote the book and lyrics, taking many scenes and lines directly from his Oscar-winning screenplay for the hit 1990 film. Dave Stewart (half of the Eurythmics) penned the music and additional lyrics with Glenn Ballard. The story is the same, plus some pretty duets with lovely harmonies, and some lively ensemble numbers.
So why does it seem only a ghost of the original movie?
About half of the score is extended romantic ballads with lots of held notes, either solo or with lovely harmonies by the two leads (and sometimes the villain as well for extra drama). Pretty as they are, it still seems like “time goes by so slowly,” to quote “Unchained Melody,” the song used so romantically in the film. In this production, since the movie’s famous love scene at the potter’s wheel would be impractical to say the least, the hero sings the number to his girlfriend as an Elvis parody, which is charming.
But although you would think that putting the intense love and grief and longing of the supernatural story into song would heighten the emotion, strangely enough, it only seems to diminish it. For one thing, the lyrics and melodies are less than memorable. For another, taking an exchange of a few lines from the movie — like when Molly asks Sam why he never says “I love you” — and blowing it up into a full pop-opera duet feels like overkill. It turns out that when you’re dealing in a contemporary setting with subjects as over-the-top as love lasting beyond death, the best way to portray it is to underplay it, and that is what Swayze and Moore do in the movie. But here, Molly keeps singing her sorrow, and Sam keeps yelling, “Get out, Molly!! You’re in danger!!!” long after he should have realized she can’t hear him because he’s, you know, dead.
Then there’s the whiff of anachronism. This show from 2012 struggles to update the movie’s 1990 setting. It throws cellphones in with the plot-central little black address book, and the cast running around in New York power suits singing about “More” seems very 1980s. Most of all, a story set in the 21st century must give the heroine some agency. But in Ghost the Musical, poor Molly seems to have even less to do than Demi Moore did 30 years ago. At least in the movie, Molly swings a mean sledgehammer, but this Molly is merely a damsel in distress.
In the second act, however, where romantic ballads give way to more plot elements from the movie, especially Sam’s getting the fake-turned-real psychic Oda Mae to impersonate a rich bank client to help foil the villain’s plot, the pulse picks up. The snappier, non-romantic numbers are quite entertaining. And one nice touch that wasn’t in the movie is Sam’s attempt to save his former friend the bad guy from his doom.
Even if the musical itself has some flaws, Toby’s does a good job with it. There is a great deal of talent on display. MaryKate Brouillet’s pretty soprano fits the bill for Molly. Patrick Gover is a pleasant Sam, especially charming when he can show his sense of humor. Justin Calhoun’s Carl is suitably suave and smarmy. And Ashley Johnson, as Oda Mae Brown, is terrific, with a powerhouse voice and great comic chops. Members of the ensemble get to shine, too, such as the marvelously named DeCarlo Raspberry in his jazzy turn as the Hospital Ghost singing “You Gotta Let Go Now,” Taylor Witt’s rapping Subway Ghost, and Patricia “Pep” Targete and Crystal Freeman as Oda Mae’s backup singers in the big pseudo-gospel number “Are You a Believer?”
(Not only do you get to see these excellent performers onstage, but as is customary at dinner theater, they and members of the crew are your waiters for the evening, so you can meet them and express your appreciation personally. The buffet food is pleasant, and you can get festive drinks — alcoholic and non — in souvenir glasses to take home. Many patrons were celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, which were announced from the stage, adding to the celebratory atmosphere.)
The creative team has made excellent work of producing the show on the 360-degree stage. The musicians, who are usually hidden at Toby’s, are out in the open here on two platforms above the audience, while Music Director Ross Scott Rawlings capably conducts from another. Director/choreographer Mark Minnick keeps the action moving and the sightlines clean, making sure that the audience can see as much as possible. David A. Hopkins’s scenic and lighting design definitely does the trick, with essential pieces of set moving on and off stage fluidly and lighting, smoke and sound effectively (and sometimes quite creepily) indicating the supernatural. And kudos to Janine Sunday’s costumes, such as the varied white outfits for the ghosts, the perfect replica of the movie’s shocking pink suit for Oda Mae, and Sam’s shirt, subtly shaded from white to pale gray, which makes him look as if he is glowing above and fading away down below.
It may be an eternal mystery why some movies have glorious afterlives as successful musicals and others wind up in purgatory. Perhaps the spirit in which it is done can bless or curse. If the creative team believe, truly, in the material, rather than just wanting to cash in on its legacy, perhaps it can ascend to another plane. But in any case, there is so much talent in today’s theater community that even more earthbound material can sometimes come alive.
If you enjoyed Ghost (“the hit motion picture starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopie Goldberg!”), and you like romantic musicals, you’ll love Ghost the Musical.
As one of the show’s songs says, “suspend your disbelief” and enjoy.
Running Time: Approximately two hours 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Ghost the Musical plays through November 6, 2022, at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. Showtimes are Tuesday through Sunday, and showtimes and prices vary. Senior, military, and group rates are available. Tickets can be purchased directly through the box office by calling 410-730-8311. To purchase tickets online, visit Ticketmaster.com.
The playbill for Ghost the Musical is here.