Take a familiar film title, retain the original screenwriter to provide the book and add in a new score by a well-known pop writer – but be careful to retain the classic song identified with the film’s most iconic moment – then stir. An instant, Broadway-ready hit is born.
If only it were that simple. Just think of shows such as Flashdance and Dirty Dancing, which systematically throw away the goodwill of their titles to flounder in unnecessarily literal recreations of their film versions as they inevitably recreate the shower dance and watermelon scene respectively. So, does Ghost the Musical have a ghost of a chance, as our grieving heroine once again sits at her potter’s wheel, this time trying to spin clay into theatrical gold?
The answer on this occasion is a surprising yes, and it’s precisely because it constantly surprises, with layers of genuine feeling and real comedy all kept in constant forward motion, in a show full of plot-driven tension and tenderness. It’s another triumph for director Matthew Warchus, now the savviest director of musicals in the British theatre, who – with the West End arrival of his RSC hit Matilda in October – will have the two best new musicals of the year to his credit.
He magnificently marshals the spectacle that musicals traditionally thrive on, yet colours it with the right emotional detail to offer a genuinely involving and gripping entertainment. Designer Rob Howell brilliantly combines physical sets with Jon Driscoll’s video and projections to keep the action in constant motion, with choreography by Ashley Wallen and additional movement by Liam Steel keeping the cast moving, too.
But it is the central human interaction between Caissie Levy’s attractively vulnerable Molly and Richard Fleeshman’s buff but dead Sam that moves the audience. It’s a relationship you care about. Even if Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard’s sometimes generic pop score is occasionally too ballad heavy, the show delivers on other fronts. Paul Kieve, who created the illusions, and Sharon D Clarke, playing the phoney psychic who suddenly finds she’s not so phoney after all, are two of the secret weapons of British theatre, and steal the show with their contributions – the first by stealth, the second with sass.
A producing team that coincidentally includes David Garfinkle, original lead Broadway producer of Spider-Man, has given flesh and blood life to a story of ectoplasm that is sure to have a long theatrical afterlife.