Stage preview: 'Ghost' aims for magic as a romantic musical

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If you leave Heinz Hall this week looking like you've just seen a ghost, then the team behind "Ghost the Musical" has done its job.

Certainly, there's magic to do in trying to recapture the chemistry from "Ghost," the 1990 movie that soared on the romantic chemistry of Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore and the humor provided by Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg.

‘Ghost the Musical’
Where: PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh at Heinz Hall, Downtown.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6 p.m. next Sunday.
Tickets: $20-$75; or 412-456-6666.

The other task at hand is conjuring a ghost or two.

Credit illusionist Paul Kieve with the abracadabra that inspired Time Out New York to gush, "The special effects are genuinely stunning."

Mr. Kieve, the magic consultant on "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and a historian on the subject of magic and illusion, has been employing his sleight of hand on theater productions since the early 1990s. He has worked his magic on "Ghost," which the story of Sam and Molly, a loving couple whose world is shattered when Sam is killed. To solve his murder and protect Molly, Sam's ghost finds a way to return by connecting with Oda Mae Brown, a psychic fraud who, much to her surprise, can, indeed, channel the afterlife.

The musical was a five-time Olivier Award nominee during its run in London's West End, and it enjoyed a short run on Broadway in 2012 before hitting the road this year. Andrew Bacigalupo, company and assistant stage manager for the "Ghost" tour that comes to Heinz Hall Tuesday, was in the audience for the second preview of the London production and now watches over the ghostly effects.

"The walking through the door of Sam is a big moment," Mr. Bacigalupo said. "In the movie, it's very simple to have CGI and all that make it happen. That's the magic of a movie. But when we do it on stage, it happens right there in front of you. So it's a much more impressive thing to see. So the walk through the door is one of the most popular and one of the cooler illusions in the show."

If you know the correct response to "I love you" in Sam and Molly speak is "Ditto," then you are aware that there are certain must-use elements from screen to stage. A ghostly fight on a speeding train, for example, becomes a theatrical thrill ride created with projections and tricks of the illusion trade.

The screenplay and book of the musical are written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who kept those moments of cinematic magic that fans expect but not necessarily where and when they occurred on screen. For instance, the scene in which Sam and Molly generate heat at a pottery wheel to the tune of "Unchained Melody" has been re-imagined. The Righteous Brothers' song is still there -- along with original works by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard -- but not when expected.

"You have to have the pottery-wheel scene, which is a pretty big moment in the movie. As soon as you think 'Ghost,' that's what people think," Mr. Bacigalupo said. "But we do it a bit differently. In the movie, the pottery scene comes before Sam's death. In the show, it happens a little late. He has already passed and Molly is by herself doing the pottery. He's there with her, but she doesn't realize it at that point. It still has the same effect and look to it, but he's there as the ghost."

Enter Oda Mae, a flamboyant clairvoyant who is shocked to find she can hear Sam and is persuaded to help him. Oda brings the humor, Sam and Molly bring the romance, and the production team brings the illusions.

As prep for keeping track of all the moving parts and people involved in a national tour such as "Ghost," Cincinnati native Bacigalupo has traveled the world with "Drumline Live!" and "The Merchants of Bollywood," and he was stage manager for the Milan, Italy, production of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert."

"Both 'Ghost' and 'Priscilla' are giant shows," he said. " 'Priscilla' in Milan was a replica of the New York show, just in Italian. These shows are very similar to their original productions."

His job is to help the company stay true to the vision of director Matthew Warchus, who shepherded the London and Broadway shows before the tour hit the road and to make sure that Mr. Kieve's illusions go off without a hitch. The traveling team includes 15 people who provide the technical know-how, along with 20 cast members and seven musicians, plus managers and staff. It takes six trucks to haul "Ghost" from town to town, and at each new city, around 60 local crew members are hired to load the show in and out and 29 are employed during each performance.

"It is one of the most technically advanced shows right now," Mr. Bacigalupo said. "We have a lot of projections, we have two video walls that weigh 6,000 pounds each, and those are all controlled by an operator. There's lighting, sound, video, cues -- there's a lot going on [and] simple errors could end up causing a catastrophe. That's why everything is so rehearsed to the exact second, and fortunately we have highly trained professionals. They keep everything going in their specific areas."

Each new theater requires that the tour reach into its bag of tricks. This will be the manager's first time at Heinz Hall, although he has been in the Pittsburgh Cultural District before, working on "Drumline Live!" when it was at the Byham Theater.

"With all of our technical equipment, the depth of our show is 35 feet -- that's even deeper than 'Wicked,' for example," he said, but not to worry. "At this point, we've been touring since September. So we have a lot of options and backup plans."

The spectacle of "Ghost" serves a movie that makes just about everyone's list of top 10 tearjerkers. It's also a message movie, said Mr. Bacigalupo.

"The first song in the show is called 'Here Right Now,' and it's all about living life to the fullest. As I was sitting there [as an audience member], I was thinking these three people are about to go on this journey that is sad for the characters. But for people working on the show or who are moved by the show, it is a life message and motivation to live a full life because anything can happen.

"And," he added, "the illusions and spectacle that people want to see? That's there, too."

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