It’s impossible to hear Unchained Melody without envisaging Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore at the pottery wheel in the 1990 movie of Ghost. The musical adaptation first took to the stage not far down the road from its current home at the Liverpool Empire, when it opened in 2011 in Manchester, before storming into the West End and onto Broadway with its contemporary musical score, incredibly innovative set and truly magical visual effects. Both the movie and the original stage production received a string of major awards nominations and wins at the Oscars, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Oliviers and Tony Awards, so Bill Kenwright’s new adaptation of this ambitious project has a lot to live up to.
The story hasn’t changed much throughout all of it’s journey. Sam and Molly are deeply in love living their perfect life in New York until Sam is mugged and killed in the street. While Molly mourns his passing, the narrative is carried by Sam’s Ghost, not yet ready to move on to his place in the afterlife. And it’s a good thing he sticks around, as it seems Molly is in danger so long as Sam’s former best friend Carl is on the scene. Ambition and embezzlement reveal Carl to be our villain, so Sam enlists the help of eccentric psychic Oda Mae Brown to pass on messages to Molly, and stop the evil plan. His unfinished business complete, Sam is ready to cross over. It’s a simple love story with a touch of the wacky, the supernatural and some super-steamy-pottery.
This new production received a major backlash of negativity from critics when it opened earlier this year with former Girls Aloud “singer” Sarah Harding in the role of Molly. Replacing Harding is West End leading lady, Carolyn Maitland. After a successful career in London and on tour, Maitland won a West End award for “Understudy of the Year” for covering the role of Ellen in Cameron Macintosh’s Miss Saigon; a role which she went back to play full time. Now rightfully no longer an understudy, Carolyn shines as Molly and gives this production a much needed quality boost. With effortless vocals and a resilient charm, she steals the show with her heartfelt rendition of “With You”.
As her leading man, Andy Moss surprises with a big voice and big heart. Though definitely rough around the edges and lacking certain vocal finesse, Moss is easy to fall in love with. As his rival, Carl, Sam Ferriday is sinister and commanding in just the right places, charming as he manipulates Molly and desperate when he realises there are forces at play he cannot control.
But the light relief amidst all the misery comes in bucket loads from Jacqui Dubois as Oda Mae, the role originated by Whoopi Goldberg in the movie. Dubois takes no time to be scared of stepping into Ms Goldberg’s shoes, as she wowed the packed Liverpool audience with her larger than life performance and even larger lungs.
The problem with this tour though, is not its casting. Ghost does not boast an incredibly memorable score, in fact only two or three musical themes linger once leaving the theatre, and one of those is the world famous Unchained Melody. What makes this musical spectacular and unmissable is its presentation the quality of the illusions. There are many musicals on the road, especially from the Kenwright brand, that have successfully stripped back massive musicals to the essentials, redesigned them brilliantly and made musical theatre more easy on tour and much more affordable to audiences of today. This show is not one that should be treated as such. Cheap illusions, or no illusions where there should be, and empty sets only expose the writing as less than interesting; and no matter how many GCSE Dance ensemble routines you throw in to fill the sparse setting with activity, it doesn’t detract from the fact that this show demands a magical treatment that it doesn’t get.
This talented cast work incredibly hard and the show is a fun night out with a timeless love story to tell, but the magic of previous incarnations is sadly lacking.
Reviewed by Tate James
Ghost plays at Liverpool Empire until 15 April 2017