When the man behind me bolted after the first act of “Ghost: The Musical,” saying “worst thing I ever saw on a stage” that sounded like the truth. He was also saving himself from what feels more like an assault than a Broadway show.
Veteran theatergoers all have their worsts. I saw Meat Loaf in purple tights do a rock version of Hamlet 36 years ago, and I still suffer flashbacks. That was my personal bottom and “Ghost: The Musical” works hard at coming close.
The debacle at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre prompts so many questions. Mainly: Why? Why mount a musical of a slight movie, which though beloved by some, has a pretty goofy plot? I adored Patrick Swayze. Who didn’t? But if there are real ghosts, Swayze, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine should be haunting the theater to put a stop to this.
The slight plot is excusable because that was the basis of the movie. The challenge becomes how to translate it to the stage. The answer, it seems, is to spend what had to be an obscene amount of money on the set, which includes people movers usually found in airports, and loads of special effects. Special effects rule this production. That may work for blockbuster movies. It does not work, or at least this particular show does not work, on Broadway.
“Ghost” is astonishingly loud and aggressively visual, in fact it relies more on visual than the usual tools of theater, say, talent.
Three sides of the stage feature screens that light up, displaying often interesting graphics. The dancers are put through clunky steps in front of the ever-changing screens and below blinding lights. Compared to what is going on inside the theater, exiting into Times Square feels soothing.
The opening has the audience zoom in as if we are airborne and the beauty of the New York skyline dominates the stage. There’s a screen montage of Sam and Molly’s (Richard Fleeshman, “Coronation Street” Caissie Levy, “Hair”) relationship.
There is one very cool special effect; as a ghost, Sam can walk through walls. Then there are special effects, which seem taken from amusement parks. The most unusual looks as if it is a gravity-free subway. It takes over the stage.
A punk ghost, who rules this train, beats up Sam. Later the punk ghost raps: “This is your reality/You got no physicality.” And in another lyric, he raps: “Feel the tension/That’s the key factor/Focus your attention/Like a nuclear reactor.”
Regrettably, Dave Stewart, half of the brilliant Eurythmics, is among those responsible for the music and lyrics.
There are lighter moments. In the role of Oda Mae Brown, for which Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar for the 1990 film, Da’Vine Joy Randolph rips up the stage. No one else should bother singing when she releases her deep and powerful voice.
Early on, hewing to the movie plot, Sam is killed. He lingers, watches his former assistant and friend, Carl (Bryce Pinkham), try to steal a fortune and hit on his beloved Molly. Molly mourns. Molly cries. Molly finally listens to Oda Mae.
Oda Mae, who thought she was a fraud channeling other spirits, can hear Sam. The other spirits who make appearances are colonial women, a World War I ace and other assorted figured from history all singing forgettable songs.
But when Oda Mae rules the stage she reminds the audience that they are not trapped in a music video, just a musical that may haunt them forever and not in a good way.