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'Ghost the Musical' leaves mixed impression at the Hippodrome

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

8:49 AM EDT, April 10, 2014

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Psychic powers are not required to detect the problems with "Ghost the Musical," which haunts the Hippodrome this week as part of a national tour. 

For a start, it's over-produced. It seems the creators wanted to have it both ways, wanted it to be a stage show and a movie at the same time, with all sorts of cinematic elements popping up seemingly every few minutes. If you wanted to see the 1990 "Ghost," you'd put it in your Netflix queue.

Another problem is that, like many a new musical ("Flashdance" screeches to mind), this one is over-sung. That's an extra-troubling condition since the "American Idol"-ized caterwauling is directed at mostly forgettable songs by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard.

A pity, since there is a decent theatrical vehicle underneath all the gleam and scream, dying to break free.

You don't have to be a believer in an afterlife, or have much faith in this one, to be engaged by the plot about a murdered man in ghostly form trying to keep his earthly girlfriend from suffering similar harm (Bruce Joel Rubin adapted his Academy Award-winning screenplay for the musical).

And it's possible to quibble over this or that turn in the story -- do we really need to have the bad guys dragged off in hokey fashion to a reddish, hellish fate, a la Don Giovanni? -- without being turned off by the whole thing. There is a lot of good mileage in the dramatic threads of love, loss, greed, duplicity, fear and confidence woven through this work.

So how come no one noticed that with each piling-on of production numbers and gimmicks, those threads got harder to see, harder to feel?

This "Ghost" tries with such a vengeance to grab hold that you end up wanting to fight back, the way Sam Wheat (Steven Grant Douglas) does when he is mugged on the way home from a restaurant with his girlfriend Molly Jenson (Katie Postotnik). 

That said, it is easy enough to yield to some of the pressure, especially when applied by Carla R. Stewart as quack psychic Oda Mae Brown, the role that earned Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar.

Stewart dives head-first into the assignment and lifts "Ghost's" spirits terrifically. She's very funny, vibrant, disarming. The whole stage lights up -- without special effects -- every time she appears, especially given her riotous outfits (one is capped by a Concorde-size, bird-shaped hat).

Douglas is a likable actor who communicates Sam's confusion and hurt affectingly. As for his singing, he tends to mistake vocal wattage for expressive phrasing. He's far more engaging each time he keeps the voice in check and connects more simply and directly to the words.

In the case of Postotnik, the musical side of things is the big disappointment. Her voice turns raw, flat and screechy when pushed, and she pushes it a lot. On the other hand, her portrayal of the emotionally uprooted Molly is natural and nuanced.

Robby Haltiwanger shows promise, dramatically and vocally, as Sam's not quite trusty work buddy Carl. Evette Marie White and Lydia Warr generate sparks aplenty as Oda Mae's Psychettes. Brandon Curry screams relentlessly through the role of Subway Ghost and only succeeds in annoying (the stagecraft for the subway scenes, however, is brilliant).

Speaking of annoying ghosts, the nice ones who first greet Sam in his unexpectedly spectral state wear out their welcome quickly. They are not helped by Ashley Wallen's choreography, which treats them like zombies for no good reason (dance numbers for the humans aren't much better, relying mostly on bobble-head moves and angular gestures).

The production, directed by Matthew Warchus, never runs out of things to see, what with tons of props, snazzy video projections and dynamic lighting. The clever illusions (by Paul Kieve) work neatly.

Just as the recently premiered musical "Beaches" made sure to include the song everyone remembers from the movie, the score for this show makes abundant use of "Unchained Melody," the vintage hit by Hy Zarel and Alex North that was crucial to the "Ghost" soundtrack 24 years ago.

Even when it undergoes some pretty rough treatment in this production, that song still sounds more original and telling than the new stuff. (I think subtler arrangements and subtler vocal styling would greatly help the score, allowing the best in it to register more effectively.)

A decidedly mixed bag, then, this musical "Ghost." Not nearly as dreadful as you might think from some of the reviews the show generated on Broadway and elsewhere, but not nearly as satisfying as it so clearly could be.

Performances continue through Sunday.