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News Maryland Howard County Columbia

Heartstrings, prepare to be tugged by 'Ghost'

"Ghost" refuses to give up the, er, ghost. This 1990 hit movie was transformed into a 2012 Broadway musical with the bluntly straightforward title "Ghost the Musical."

It played at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre this past April; and now, in what amounts to a community theater booking coup, it's playing in Columbia at the Drama Learning Center TYA (Teaching Young Actors) Teen Professionals.

Although this show's story requires the audience's nonstop suspension of disbelief and the show's music is not exactly memorable, there's no denying the popular appeal of such relentlessly romantic material.

"Ghost the Musical" tells the story of a young New York banker named Sam and his girlfriend, Molly, who are endearing as they decorate their Brooklyn apartment and tentatively discuss love and marriage.

These characters have ventured into adulthood and professional careers recently enough that the show actually works quite well for teen actors who are about to head into that world.

As Sam, Josh Altenburg is convincing as a young professional still figuring out what the adult world is all about; and as Molly, Claire Cerand likewise brings an appealing blend of sincerity, insecurity and enthusiasm to the role.

There's also a sidekick friend, Carl, played by Seth Fallon with so much gushy friendliness that you rightly wonder whether Carl has a less than friendly personal agenda.

The plot will be so familiar to most audience members that there's really no need for a spoiler alert in terms of the dramatic incident at the sobbing heart of "Ghost the Musical." When Sam is killed during a mugging, his ghost sticks around and tries as best a ghost can to look after Molly.

Relieving the somber sense of loss is Sam's ability to communicate with an extremely extroverted psychic named Oda Mae Brown. She's played by adult actor Felicia Akunwafor with such gusto that the essentially serious story is often put across with broad comedy. If anything, it may be too broad for some tastes, but a lot of the jokes do score.

Oda Mae has the difficult task of having to explain to Molly that Sam's ghost is still hanging around the apartment. "He's stuck. He's between worlds," Oda Mae says of Sam's existential dilemma of temporarily being stuck between heaven and hell. It's best not to think about this too much. If you go to this show, just go with its metaphysical flow.

Besides the main characters, the story also contains numerous New Yorkers, both living and dead. So expect the occasional chorus line of ghosts.

If this musical's supernatural and sentimental material is faithful to the movie, that's the logical consequence of the musical having book and lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin, who adapted his Academy Award-winning screenplay.

As for the music in this musical, it's also true to the source material. That means you'll be hearing the classic pop song "Unchained Melody" over and over again. It's a great tune, so that's not a problem. And, of course, "Unchained Melody" has the Pavlovian effect of inducing audience members to get out their handkerchiefs.

The original music in "Ghost the Musical" is by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) and Glen Ballard. Their songs aren't exactly notable, but they get the job done.

This enjoyable local staging of "Ghost the Musical" suffers a bit from a musical imbalance in which the vocalists are often nearly overwhelmed by the live music.

Music director Tiffany Underwood Holmes, who conducts and plays the piano, gets such a nice full sound from her small musical ensemble that the percussion-driven playing tends to ride on top of the voices.

You'll notice this right from the start of the show, when Altenburg and Cerand perform a duet, "Here Right Now," that's a very agreeable introduction to the lead characters. These singers admittedly do not have large voices, but they have voices worth hearing. They often don't stand a chance with those drums.

The only performer who consistently rises above the musical volume is Akunwafor, whose delivery in the number "Are You a Believer" will make you a believer in her lung power.

The stage director of this production, Stephanie Lynn Williams, keeps the action moving forward through many scene changes. It helps that there are so few props to push around; and it also helps that much of the scene setting is achieved through slide projections of both a quiet Brooklyn apartment and the hectic Wall Street crowds. The mostly empty stage is populated by a lively young cast bringing this ghost story to life.

"Ghost the Musical" runs through June 22 at the Drama Learning Center, 9130-I Red Branch Road in Columbia. Remaining performances are June 19, 20 and 21 at 7:30 p.m., and June 21 and 22 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $16-$19. Call 410-997-9352 or go to http://www.dramalearningcenter.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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