Review: Ghost the Musical

Emily Pace and Seth Paden in Ghost the Musical              Photo by Joshua McGowen

By Larry Laneer
October 22, 2018

 Although it starts off vague, Ghost the Musical turns out to be a sweet little love story intertwined with a ghost story. The show stretches credulity, but some people say all musicals do that.

Based on the 1990 film (with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore as the leads), the show is now being put on by Pollard Theatre Company in Guthrie. Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard wrote the music and lyrics with book and lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin, who wrote the motion picture’s screenplay.

Pollard delayed the production’s opening a week due to “technical concerns.” As written, the show requires some special effects, and Pollard has struck a reasonable balance between the company’s capabilities and what the production needs to convey the supernatural. A bigger-budget staging would have far more elaborate special effects, but this production does not seem scaled down or skimpy. Creative uses of scrims, projections, lighting, sound effects, a tension-inducing score, and fine acting come together for an entertaining couple of hours.

The musical is set in New York City, but it’s hard to tell from this production when. Maybe about the time of the movie. Business-executive types in high finance go around in preppy suits carrying hard-sided briefcases. The unmarried couple Sam and Molly have bought a fixer-upper in Brooklyn. He’s an uncharacteristically nice, if buttoned-up, Wall Streeter. She’s a ceramicist who’s just now getting into the galleries. Before long, a tragic event happens. But with this being a ghost story and mystery/thriller, things and people aren’t always what and whom they seem to be. The audience knows more than the characters on stage do, so you may be tempted to shout “Don’t open that door!”

W. Jerome Stevenson and Jared Blount get co-director credit with scenic and lighting design by Stevenson and sound and video design by Blount. Stevenson’s versatile set serves well the cinematic structure of the show. The many scene changes flow smoothly, and a New York City skyline extends to the urban horizon. Stevenson, Blount, and music director Todd Malicoate meld lighting, sound, and score into a satisfying whole.

But this subcompact production wouldn’t amount to much without fine performances from the cast. As the leads, Seth Paden (new to me) plays Sam, and Emily Pace is Molly. The roles demand equal ability in singing and acting, and Paden and Pace have the chops for both. Paden (let’s see more of him) stays on stage for much of the show in a demanding role. As Molly, Pace swings convincingly between grief and frustration. Plus, the two have credible chemistry.

De’Vin Lewis commands the stage as the store-front psychic Oda Mae. Her over-the-top performance is completely in character. For my money, Lewis outdoes Whoopi Goldberg, who played the part in the movie. But Goldberg didn’t have the advantage of the musical’s two soulful solos for Oda Mae. I’d quote the songs’ titles, but Pollard doesn’t list the musical numbers in the program, an amateurish omission. Charlie Monnot plays an unexpected villain, although his venal character might claim he’s a victim. The role is a welcome stretch for Monnot.

The score’s songs are serviceable (you won’t leave the theater humming any of the tunes), but the underlying music creates tension like a film score. The five-piece pit band (typical for Pollard) puts out a surprisingly big sound when needed and can be as subtle as a whisper. Drummer Aaron Marshall and violinist Amanda Fortney stand out when musical extremes are needed.

Ghost won’t rank among the great musicals of our time. With this show, Pollard has set a modest goal and achieves it with noticeable effort.

Ghost the Musical by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard (music/lyrics) and Bruce Joel Rubin (book/lyrics)
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through October 27
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie

Review: When We’re Gone

Van Hughes (John), left, and John Furey (Todd)                           Photo by KO Rinearson

By Larry Laneer
October 1, 2018

 How about making a musical tragedy set in an ancient time but with contemporary rock or hip-hop music? This formula has worked before, so Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma is bringing us When We’re Gone, set in 1349 London during an outbreak of the bubonic plague. It’s hard to beat that for a tragedy.

Directed by Michael Baron, the show is the most recent production in Lyric’s exemplary program to première new musicals. With music by Scotty Arnold and book and lyrics by Alana Jacoby, the show reflects our own times as much as it does the 14th century. We’ve also had our plagues: AIDS, opioids.

The show concerns Todd, a teen musician who has taken it upon himself to doctor plague victims while trying to play in a band with his mates Ashton and Colin. (Todd, Ashton, Colin? These are 14th-century names? They are in this show.) Ashton replaced former band member John, a plague victim who haunts the show as narrator and the character Death. But playing in a band and ministering to the sick gets to be a bit much with bodies piling up outside the tavern where the lads play. Todd must make a choice between art and service.

Todd’s teen angst and conflicts with his father, William, are completely modern. Then, you have Rosie, the lad’s love interest. At one point in the second act, Todd laments he tried art, service, and love but remains unfulfilled. Welcome to the real world, Todd.

 The show is based in fact. The bubonic plague had appeared earlier in Europe and reached London in 1349. People didn’t understand what was happening. It took a while for them to realize fleas and rats carried Pasturella pestis, as it was identified much later. Some thought God was mad at humanity and dealing out punishment, while others claimed it was the work of the Evil One. The historian Barbara W. Tuchman has an excellent chapter on the subject in her A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.

Although in an ancient setting, the show’s score ranges from hard rock to folk rock with a little Gregorian chant at the beginning. Who knew they had electric guitars in 1349? Or electricity? Jacoby’s lyrics are convincing and produce winces only a couple of times. Arnold powers it up with full-bore rock and slows it down with acoustic guitar. An acapella song by the father, William, is as surprising as it is beautiful. A seven-piece band led by James Dobinson accompanies the show with the usual rock instrumentation plus violin, mandolin, and cello.

Lyric is giving the show a top-notch production. Baron found actors to play the band members who are accomplished at guitar playing, rock singing, and acting. The only difference between these actors and rock musicians is that you can understand the lyrics the guys in this show are singing.

John Furey plays Todd, who is as conflicted as any character this side of Hamlet. Furey’s Todd literally defies Death, so good luck to him. As John/Death, Van Hughes gives the character an inevitability that could only be death (oh, yeah, and taxes). Derrick Medrano’s Ashton argues forcefully the art side of Todd’s decision between art and service. Antonio Rodriguez gives a solid performance as Colin, and Kat Metcalfe is equally strong as Rosie. Matthew Alvin Brown’s William tries to pray the plague away.  (In this day and age, one could ask why a show has five male roles to one female. As Baron noted in pre-performance remarks, the show has been nine years in the making—not unusual for a musical—so, in a way, it’s not of this day and age.)

Befitting the subject matter, the production’s design goes from dark to darker. Adam Koch’s scenic design consists of four rotating towers with many detailed elements that portray several settings, ranging from the tavern to the cathedral. Props include about a score of skulls. Helena Kuukka’s lighting design aims sometimes directly at the audience. Reflecting the overall design of the production, Jeffrey Meek’s costumes look 21st century but suggest vaguely 14th century.

Todd makes his choice between art and service. He has his reasons. Others may disagree with him. But Arnold and Jacoby have laden the show with a lot of dramatic weight. “The world’s a mess,” one character says near the end. How do the creators bring the show to a satisfying conclusion? I’m not sure they do. They seem to be saying let’s all stick together and maybe we’ll somehow, someway get through this. Here’s hoping.

When We’re Gone by Scotty Arnold (music) and Alana Jacoby (book and lyrics)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p..m. Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through October 14
Plaza Theatre
1725 NW 16th St.
Tickets start at $25