Busy effects drown out emotional pull of 'Ghost the Musical'

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"Ghost" the movie wore its heart on its sleeve, never flinching from the melodrama of lovers unjustly torn apart. It dared you not to cry. "Ghost the Musical” pulls every theatrical trick in the book -- and some new ones, to be sure -- to steal the focus from the tale of unbearable loss, grief and closure, so it’s digital imagery rather than emotional depth that leaves a lasting impression.

Perhaps it was the fact that outside Heinz Hall on opening night, revelers were gathering steam to celebrate the New Year, but inside, the mood was considerably more sedate. The effects-heavy production of the "Ghost the Musical" tour overpowers the story of Sam and Molly, lovers who parted when Sam is killed during a robbery. The ghost of Sam stays earthbound, determined to solve his murder and protect Molly -- and find a way to tell her "I love you," three words he was unable to say during their time together.

He eventually is able to communicate through one Oda Mae Brown, an outrageous psychic who doesn't yet know she has "the gift" to hear dead people. He recruits her as an unlikely ally in his earthly quest. As in the movie, Oda Mae is the life of this party. Played by Carla R. Stewart with brass and bravado, she doesn't fade into the pulsating projections, busy backdrops and colorful costumes that are her trademark. It's a role made for chewing scenery, earning Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar in the film and Da’Vine Joy Randolph a Tony nomination on stage. Ms. Stewart takes full advantage of it.

Backstage tour of 'Ghost the Musical'

Take a backstage tour of "Ghost the Musical." (Video by Nate Guidry; 1/2/2014)

Actress plays Oda Mae in 'Ghost the Musical'

Carla R. Stewart puts her own twist on the Whoopi Goldberg role in "Ghost the Musical." (Video by Melissa Tkach; 1/2/2014)

The film likewise was helped by that comedic spark, but it was a box-office hit mostly for the unapologetically tear-jerking romance between Demi Moore and the late Patrick Swayze. Their heavy-petting scene at a pottery wheel, with the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" turning up the heat, is etched in memory as an iconic movie moment. "Unchained Melody" makes several appearances here, too, first with a wink and then with a big nod to the original.

In this production, it's the overall pounding percussion and clashing cymbals of songs by Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics and Grammy-winning Glen Ballard that get in your head and overshadow what even might have been a couple of haunting ballads. Oscar-winning screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin adapted his screenplay for the musical and added lyrics to the songs.

Steven Grant Douglas and Katie Postotnik are too often asked to belt above the din around them, but they do make an appealing pair as Sam and Molly. Through no fault of theirs, the effects tend to be so overwhelming, emotion and empathy pale in their wake.

Illusionist Paul Kieve, who worked on “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and the Tony-nominated “Matilda the Musical” — likewise directed by Matthew Warchus — steals the show, along with Jon Driscoll, who created the LED designs for a moving subway car and the hustle and bustle of New York.

As we move quickly through the romance portion of the first act, we can't help but pity Sam and Molly's supposedly close friend, the clean-cut, anxious Carl (Robby Haltiwanger). He's second banana to banker Sam in the workplace and a guy they invite into their home but ignore as they take selfies and begin to make out while he's sitting beside them. Early on, he fades in among the masses for a street scene before his true nature begins to emerge.

Oda Mae, meanwhile, erupts on the scene as a faux psychic who is flummoxed to suddenly hear Sam in her ear, and eventually has to put up with a chorus of ghosts (in some cases proving that dead men do, indeed, wear plaid). Along with her comically soulful minions (Evette Marie White and Shannan E. Johnson) and desperate clientele, the show comes alive when she's around, and thank goodness.

Her exchanges with Sam take the edge off of the sweet nothings he shares with Molly. For example, when Sam tells Oda Mae, "We're in trouble," she replies, "We? You already dead!" As Sam struggles to make sense of what's happened, he also runs into other ghosts, who explain in song that this isn't heaven or hell "so you might as well relax, cause this son is a whole new ball of wax."

We go along for the ride as Mr. Douglas navigates through his new, otherworldly existence. His passage through a closed door, a key scene in the movie, is repeated onstage in eye-popping fashion, and it earned the biggest applause of opening night.

A spectacular scene occurs on a moving subway train that is haunted by a menacing ghost, who eventually helps Sam learn to move objects -- a problem for newly minted earthbound ghosts. Brandon Curry plays the angry train spirit with energy and grace to spare, but he's forced to scream over a cacophony of music and subway noises and those amazing visuals to be heard.

There's a lot of that sort of competition to be seen and heard in "Ghost the Musical." Choreography by Ashley Wallen works in conjunction with moving projections but nuance is mostly lost amid the busy backdrops and flashy lighting. Liam Steel is credited with "additional movement sequences" that might have something to do with that wild train ride.

The Broadway production of "Ghost" received Tony nominations for lighting (Hugh Vanstone) and scenic design (Rob Howell and Mr. Driscoll), and the national tour now at Heinz Hall remains their show. You get that as soon as you walk into the auditorium and find a giant screen projection with Sam and Molly in an embrace, hovering over the New York City skyline. When the actors emerge onto the stage behind an LED screen, it seems almost like a 3-D effect at first.

The assault on the senses continues over the next two and a half hours, moving along at a more balanced pace after intermission. It's a lot to take in, often too much. The message of "Ghost" may be to live life in the moment, because you never know what might happen in the next moment. In this production, the overriding message seems to lean toward, if you've got it, flaunt it.

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.

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