Spit-spot, cheerio and all that other rubbish. I’ve just arrived from London! While my primary purpose there was work-related, I carved out some time for a two shows. Lucky for me, the TKTS booth was just a five minute stroll from my hotel, so most of my theatre going decision making was based on what was left 30 minutes before the booth closed. Plus, I adore the musical Crazy for You, and anticipated it to be a sure-fire smile-maker (which I needed), and Ghost the Musical sounded like a potential Carrie-level disaster, so how could I miss that theatrical train wreck?
Boy, was I in for a surprise.
The West End revival of Crazy for You got its start at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre — Britain’s only permanent professional outdoor theatre — in summer 2011. (This is the same venue where the upcoming New York production of Into the Woods, set to play Central Part’s Delacorte Theater as part of The Public Theater’s Summer 2012 programming, began.) From the success of the Regent’s Park production, Crazy For You transferred to West End’s Novello Theatre, which is where I caught it.
I’ve always heard that the West End doesn’t know how to do American musical comedy, and I never knew what that meant until I saw this production.
Talk about leaden.
From the God-awful American accents (show me one person from Nevada who pronounces it “Nah-vah-da”) to the strangely dour and overworked new dance arrangements to, most disappointingly, the hyperactive-yet-charmless choreography (more on that in a moment), this show is a chore. That’s not to say there weren’t moments of magic, mainly thanks to the strength of the material (Gerswhin’s toe-tapping tunes and Ken Ludwig’s snappy book), but they were few and far between.
For me, the main issue is the choreography. Susan Stroman marked her Broadway debut with this show, winning her first Tony award and moving on to major successes such as the revival of Showboat, Contact and the megahit The Producers. I saw the original production, with choreography by Stroman and directed by her late husband Mike Ockrent, in Toronto in the early ’90s. In 1999, PBS broadcast Papermill Playhouse’s production, which recreated Stroman and Ockrent’s work. Of course I taped it and committed Stroman’s sparkling choreography to memory. Here are a few scenes from that production:
Stephen Mear has choreographed the West End revival, which has shades of Stroman, but is mostly a lot of uninspired movement accompanied by a cacophony of new dance arrangements by Gareth Valentine. Where Stroman knew how to build a number to the point where the audience is left breathless, the only people who looked out of breath in this revival were the overworked dancers.
And then there were the sets. Brown, bland and unexciting. The final moments when the stage should be transformed into a Busby Berkeley-esque romantic finale looks about as transporting as a stroll down my back alley. While the performances from the two leads, Sean Palmer and Clare Foster as Bobby Child and Polly Baker respectively, were understatedly charming, they weren’t enough to revive this DOA revival.
Ghost the Musical has every potential to be a ridiculous disaster. I mean, it’s a musical based on that sappy 1990 movie about a dude who’s murdered (Patrick Swayze) and comes back in ghost form through a sassy black medium (Whoopi Goldberg) to save his grieving girlfriend (Demi Moore) from the same fate. Plus there’s that iconic clay pot making scene, which you’re probably already staging in your head, musical style — and it’s probably awful.
However, they’ve managed to rethink the movie for the stage, and, for the most part, it works. Yes, the plot is still rather trite and the clay pot scene does make an appearance (how could it not?), but the show has found its own theatrical language to tell the story — and it’s jaw-dropping.
Most of the kudos must go to the design team (which includes a lighting designer, a video and projection designer, a movement sequence coordinator and, for good measure, an illusionist) who’ve done wonders to make director Matthew Warchus’ highly technical vision come to life. I mean — it’s a marvel of a show to look at. I can’t recall a time when my mouth has sat agape for so long. I may have drooled on myself. Moving LED screens, onstage holograms (I think?), smoke that comes and goes on cue. Wow. It’s like being trapped in a third-dimensional world where virtual life and the afterlife are one in the same.
The rock-infused score (lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin and music and lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard — who’ve worked with the likes of Alanis Morisette and Eurythmics) has moments of melancholic beauty, but is mostly forgettable. And loud. There are also a few scenes that they’d be stupid not to cut/rethink for the upcoming Broadway production — including a tap-dancey, vaudeville number performed by some ghosts. Odd.
On the acting side, the show is a little wooden. Because it’s such a technical marvel, you get a sense the cast is trapped in the machinery of the piece and it’s more an exercise in hitting the marks rather than building an emotional arch. But that could also be due to the fact that the two leads I saw (the Demi and Patrick roles) had only a week to settle into their roles, as the original stars (Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy) have recently left the West End production to open the show on Broadway in March. Of course, the Whoopi role is designed to steal every scene she’s in, and the big voiced Sharon D. Clarke mines that opportunity with verve. And of course she gets her big, black lady number, and it, indeed, stops the show.