Any production which focuses on a love story needs careful handling if it is not to become mawkish. With 'Ghost, The Musical', there's an added complication and that lies in the plot which asks the audience to believe in ghosts. Combine those two elements, and you could easily be looking at a recipe for total disaster. However, even though I had been expecting something overtly sentimental and possibly a little corny, this new musical turns out to be both interesting and impressive.
Based on the 1990 film written by Bruce Joel Rubin (who also wrote the book and lyrics for this musical version), the story is a kind of fantasy drama which revolves around two lovers, Sam and Molly who set up home together in Brooklyn at the start of the show. Their lives seem blissfully perfect. But then Sam discovers ambiguities in some of the accounts at the bank where he works, and before he has time to investigate, Sam and Molly are mugged in the street and Sam is killed. Now a disembodied ghost, Sam seeks out the villain of the peace, both in terms of his own killing and the bank fraud.
Unlike many musicals where songs spring up with almost clockwork regularity, here the songs are used sparingly and more appropriately, and there's plenty of variety with up-beat numbers set against well-written ballads. There's also one well-known number 'Unchained Melody' which was written by Hy Zaret and Alex North.
Richard Fleeshman as Sam and Caissie Levy as Molly provide a suitably handsome and attractive couple to steer events along. Both have good singing voices and Ms Levy sings one haunting song entitled 'With You' which may well end up being a chart-topper and could easily become a standard. Sharon D Clarke provides the humour as psychic Oda Mae Brown and also shows-off her own vocal prowess to great effect.
Portraying a disembodied spirit as one of the main characters, provides plenty of opportunities for effects and tricks. In fact, they are called 'illusions' here and cleverly designed by Paul Kieve. Particularly effective are the instances where Sam and mugger, Willie, die and become ghosts instantly switching between their corpses on the floor and their ghostly incarnations. There's also a neat trick when Sam walks through a door, and the scenes in the subway are quite brilliantly realised. Most of the settings are created in computer-controlled graphics. Large panels with thousands of small lights – similar to those that display the huge ads you see in city centres – are used to portray New York and other locations. The sheer scale of these moving images is impressive in itself, but they also add enormously to both the entertainment value as well as the story development. The overall design has a dreamy, film-like quality to it.
Although there is a smattering of sentimentality, and the idea of a ghost communicating with living persons stretches believability somewhat, I have to admit that, by the end of the first half I found myself becoming engrossed. There are times when the show feels a little 'over-produced' – when the effects seem overpowering. But those times don't spoil the overall treatment or effect, and they are off-set with meticulous attention to detail, such as a small, smoking manhole-cover which I spotted at one point.
At the end of the performance there was a standing ovation, and on the way out I heard comments such as 'fabulous', 'fantastic' and 'great' from other members of the audience. A few people had obviously been crying, but I don't think it could be described as a universal reaction to the show. I am sure those who enjoy having a 'good cry' at the theatre will not be disappointed, but the intelligent treatment and considered direction eschew sentimentality and much of the show has an underlying grittiness that gives it considerable authenticity, making it surprisingly enthralling.
"It mostly lacks: heart and soul. For the rest, one is left to gawp at the ingenuity of Paul Kieve's illusions."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This may not be a great musical, but it is a highly entertaining one that looks set to keep audiences laughing, gasping and sniffing back tears for a long time to come."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Worth going to?...I’d say yes – provided that...you are not expecting anything too subtle or classical."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Paul Kieve's illusions thrill...It's all seamlessly inventive and full of synaesthetic pleasures, but it can't fully compensate for the shallowness in other departments."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"With superb special effects and engaging performances, Matthew Warchus's production certainly has plenty of dazzle." Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standrad