Camelot Theatre’s Ghost The Musical: A Five Star “Don’t Miss It” Hit!
by Lee Greene
I have written my share of plaudits and kudos for shows at Talent’s Camelot Theatre over the years, but I have never before awarded a show there FIVE Stars (especially since I tend to evaluate shows on a Four Star scale). But Camelot’s production of Ghost The Musical which opened to a full house on Friday, March 10, was THAT good, it deserves that extra, uncommon star. Put another way, Ghost, The Musical was the best production that I have ever seen at Camelot Theatre and that includes an awful lot of good shows. So if you are reading this to try to decide whether to buy tickets to see the show, I could not be less ambiguous about the answer. GO! If you only see one show this Spring, see this one.
Having gotten that out of the way, let’s get to the details. Ghost was originally produced as a feature film in 1990, starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Goldwyn and Rick Aviles. The plot centers on a young woman in jeopardy (Moore as Molly Jensen), the ghost of her murdered lover (Swayze as Sam Wheat) and a reluctant psychic (Goldberg as Oda Mae Brown) who assists him in saving her although the psychic had previously been faking her powers [Wikipedia, Ghost (1990 film), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_(1990_film)], as well as the mugger (Aviles as Willie Lopez), who inadvertently killed him, and the murdered lover’s friend and partner (Goldwyn as Carl Bruner) with a nefarious connection to the mugger and mugging incident.
The film was a huge commercial success, the highest grossing film of 1990, and nominated for 5 Academy Awards, winning Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Whoopi Goldberg. Although the film made hay through the use of the 1955 song, Unchained Melody, to emotionally embellish the romantic link between Sam Wheat and Molly Jensen, it was not a musical but rather a dramatic thriller. Just about everyone is familiar with the 1990 film, unless you were living under a rock in 1990, or really young, and oblivious then and since. We all saw the film and cried as the ghost Sam Wheat finally succeeded in his quest to overcome death and make contact with his lover, and to protect her from the imminent danger he left her in, with Unchained Melody playing to cue the tears. I should tell my readers up front that I loved the film.
Over a decade after the release of the film, the story was adapted into a stage musical, Ghost, The Musical, which retained the same story as the film but added 19 songs and an overture. [Wikipedia , Ghost the Musical, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_the_Musical]. Ghost The Musical premiered in Manchester in March 2011 and from there moved to London where it premiered in July 2011 and then on to Broadway where it premiered in April 2012. Richard Fleeshman sang the role of Sam Wheat and Caissie Levy sang Molly Jensen in all three of those premieres. The other cast members changed from venue to venue, with the Broadway production featuring Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Oda Mae Brown, Michael Balderrama as Willie Lopez and Bryce Pinkham as Carl Bruner. The show opened on Broadway to largely negative notices: Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: “innocuous, forgettable pop songs”; Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: “the show offers zip in the way of wonder. . . the book clunks along.” [Id.] The Broadway run was short-lived, closing in August 2012 and the original British production in October 2012. [Id.]
It’s with that background, having loved the film, and being aware of the disappointment enveloping the Broadway musical production, that I warily arrived at Camelot Theatre for the opening of its production of the stage musical. Boy, was I ever surprised. As my introductory comments telegraph, the Camelot production was fantastic in just about every way. It all begins with an outstanding cast, from top to bottom. The Patrick Swayze role of ghost Sam Wheat was given to extraordinarily talented brilliant young actor, Eoghan McDowell, who previously starred on the Camelot stage as Freddie Benson in September 2016’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The title of my review [http://performingarts.reviews/2016/09/06/camelot-theatres-dirty-rotten-scoundrels/] of that show, declared “A New Era Ushers In Two Surprising Fresh Stars”, with Mr. McDowell being one of them. I wrote of him:
“The Freddy role in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels requires a well-rounded performer with a full set of skills – there are hilarious, prat fall physical comic scenes; straight dramatic pieces; solo vocals; duets with each co-star, male and female; dance numbers: solo, paired, and ensemble; and transformation from an unpolished rube to a faux gentleman aristocrat, with all the costume and make-up variations apt to the moment; fierce rivalry with the older conman, while needing to cultivate and maintain the audience’s empathy and sympathy for the less experienced younger underdog. Mr. McDowell succeeds in all of that, and knocks it out of the ballpark. He does it all with a high level of energy and enthusiasm, a deft touch – hitting the edge on all the near over-the-top comic scenes without going over, never over-acting but not underacting either – just right, and all very credible and believable. And to top it off, he sings marvelously, in tune, well enunciated, and melodious. . . . For those who have seen the film version and may have liked Steve Martin’s Freddy Benson performance, boy, are you in for a surprise. Eoghan McDowell’s Freddy Benson runs circles around Steve Martin’s.”
You can pretty much repeat all of that for Mr. McDowell’s performance as Sam Wheat in Ghost the Musical. Again, it’s a very physical performance, deftly handled, mixing high drama, with light comedy and touching romance. The chemistry between Mr. McDowell’s Sam Wheat and Courtney Crawford’s Molly Jensen, which constitutes the emotional core of the show and is so critical to its success was palpable – you half expect them to leave the stage hand in hand after the final curtain and stroll into the sunset together (Sorry Sabrina!). Again, Mr. McDowell succeeds impressively at gaining the audience’s empathy and sympathy, which goes a long ways to overcoming any minor flaws in the show’s book. He once again performs with a high level of energy and is just a joy to watch, facial expressions, gestures, movements, a performance which animates the story and the songs. And once again, he sings marvelously, in tune, well enunciated, and melodious. Watching him during the songs, it is impossible to describe the experience as forgettable, even if all the songs are not memorable hits like Unchained Melody. Mr. McDowell’s performance as Sam Wheat once again “knocks it out of the ballpark.” I have to say it again, as someone who loved the 1990 film and Patrick Swayze’s performance in it, nevertheless, Eoghan McDowell’s Sam Wheat runs circles around Patrick Swayze’s.
And that’s just the beginning, because the rest of the cast surrounding Mr. McDowell were outstanding too. In the Whoopi Goldberg role, as Oda Mae Brown, Camelot cast the extraordinary, strong veteran singer, Jade A. Chavis. As I have previously written [http://performingarts.reviews/2016/04/08/next-stage-repertory-companys-almost-maine/] about Ms. Chavis:
Ms. Watt [nee Chavis] is well known to Southern Oregon theater audiences, performing regularly with Next Stage Rep, Camelot Theatre, and Craterian Music Hall, as well as singing with the Rogue Valley Gospel Group, and consistently earning glowing notices and reviews, e.g.:
“The divine Etta herself could’ve picked Jade Chavis Watt to portray her life of song in Spotlight on Etta James at the Camelot Theatre. Ms. Watt nailed the energy of the songs and the emotions they evoke, . . . She seemed to be feeling every word in each song . . . . the audience felt the pain, the angst and the hunger for love that Etta went through. Ms. Watt did an exemplary job of singing these songs and telling the story of Etta James. I wanted to go back and see it again!” [Erika Perkinson, Jade Chavis Watt as Etta James, Wow!, The Rogue Valley Messenger, Jan. 15, 2013, http://bit.ly/1WhT3bm]”
Since Ms. Chavis is known as an incomparable singer, it should not be a surprise that she sang Oda Mae’s songs marvelously. What was a bit of an unexpected delight was what a splendid and entertaining job she did with the dramatic and humorous aspects of the role. Her thespian talents have not had enough opportunities to shine like they did as Oda Mae Brown in this production, mugging, dancing, chewing up the stage with hilarity, and truth. Remembering that Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar for her performance, I liked Ms. Chavis’s better. The reader may be thinking, you must be kidding? No joke. Whoopi Goldberg’s Oda Mae Brown was mostly Whoopi Goldberg being Whoopi Goldberg. Ms. Chavis gives a credible, entertaining, and just right performance as the character, Oda Mae Brown. You don’t believe me? Go see for yourself.
Next we come to Courtney Crawford in Demi Moore’s role as Molly Jensen. I have to harken back to the title comment for my Dirty Rotten Scoundrels review: “New Era Ushers In Two Surprising Fresh Stars”. Because the new era has, in Ms. Crawford, done it again and introduced a third new star. Ms. Crawford, like Mr. McDowell before her, has appeared in a few previous productions at Camelot and other local theaters in secondary or passing roles, but never in a leading or particularly substantial role, until plucked from relative obscurity and given the major role of Molly Jensen by director Olivia Harrison, who also directed Camelot’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and plucked its two new stars, Mr. McDowell and Ms. Sabrina Hebert (referenced in my jibe above) from relative obscurity to A-list performers. Ms. Crawford’s performance as Molly Jensen was killer! She was considerably more likeable and sympathetic than the cool temperament Demi Moore in the film. As I mentioned above, the chemistry between Courtney Crawford’s Molly Jensen and Mr. McDowell’s Sam Wheat, which is so vital to the success of the show, was exceptional. Her acting was sublime – expressions, gestures, emotions and thoughts telegraphed so clearly and effectively to the audience. And she sang like an angel – Demi didn’t sing in the movie.
The supporting cast were also outstanding. Joey Larimer held down the Tony Goldwyn role as Carl Bruner and did a fine job of successfully portraying the perfidious friend who creates the drama that drives the story, and also sang the role’s songs quite nicely. Frequent Camelot performer, Rigo Jimenez, filled several roles well. He handled the dramatics of the Rick Aviles’ role of the mugger with aplomb. But he really stood out in the additional role of Louis, working in tandem with another frequent Camelot performer, Amanda McGee, in the role of Clara, as the mainstays of Oda Mae’s entourage during her pseudo-psychic séances. The two of them danced, sashayed, shimmied, shaked, mugged, and practically stole the show during all the séance scenes. George Herkert plays a very funny Hospital Ghost, who explains, with an amusing Brooklyn accent, the ins and outs of a ghost’s reality to the newly dead Sam, and later tries to contact his widow through the psychic services of Oda Mae. Darwin Garrett does a great job with a role as a Subway Ghost, who has the power to move objects and repel Sam, and eventually teaches Sam those skills, which he needs to protect Molly. Payne! Smith, a talented dancer and choreographer, not only contributed his dance skills to the exceptional ensemble dance numbers, but also provided a nice comic/dramatic turn as a banker dealing with Oda Mae and the invisible but loquacious (to Oda Mae) Sam. Jeff Mercer was very funny as Furgeson, an allegedly dim-witted financial officer from whom Oda Mae, with Sam as ventriloquist, cons a $10 million dollar withdrawal from an account set up by Carl.
The show includes a veritable trove of well-done ensemble song and dance numbers. Kudos to choreographer, Kayla Garrett, for organizing the steps and whipping the ensemble dancers into pleasing symmetry and synchronicity. The terrific ensemble singer/dancers included, in addition to many of the supporting cast already mentioned above, Sophie Marilla Stricker, Dylan Spooner, Lindee Newman, Sara Jo Czarnecki, Patricia Herkert, Carrie Ann Eve and Ella Rose Schaefer.
I have, in the past, applauded Camelot and its backstage personnel for their superior use of technical arts (lighting, video, sound, special effects, etc.) in support of their productions. This production represented a pinnacle achievement in the use of such technical arts. During the introduction to the show, the announcer provides a warning: “This show uses smoke machines, strobe lights, and simulated gunshots!” Ha! It shouldn’t be a warning – it should be a Disney ride feature description – “Be sure to watch for smoke, strobe and gunfire special effects!” All really well done. And the use of projected video, usually very good at Camelot, was raised to a whole new level of proficiency. I dislike providing spoilers where I give too much away and spoil surprises for audiences attending shows. But there are three stunning applications of video projection in this show that I just have to mention and applaud. First, repeated more than once, is full stage projection of New York City streets with traffic running through them. It’s an incredible effect that really makes it look like the cast on stage is in the middle of a busy NYC intersection. Secondly, in the scenes on the subway, involving Sam and the Subway Ghost – again there is full stage projection, as though you’re on a train with the tunnel going by outside the windows. And thirdly, projection is used at one point to create an elevator, containing passengers, in motion – on a static stage! Kudos to the entire production team for a terrific job: Bart Grady, Brian O’Connor, Alex Burt, Evan Carbone, Michael Demaree, Danielle Hein, Joshua Heuertz, Bronte Kennedy, Jake Hastings and Jillian Short.
The costumes were great, appropriate and eye-catching too. Ghosts are cleverly garbed in monotonic shades of gray, clearly identifying them, including Sam. You have to love Oda Mae’s multicolored mufti, and later her all pink hat/blouse/skirt/heels ensemble (see photo above). At one point, where it fits the story, the entire ensemble is completely clothed in lustrous eye-popping white (see photo above). Demons are Ninja-suited. A round of applause for the costume designer and staff, Addie Hall-Kester, and Rebecca Lenihan.
The set was amazing. Very clever, and extraordinarily effective, as well as efficient. Everything on wheels, the use of grommetted color canvas to turn shelving/scaffolding into all manner of set elements. Love the door which Sam the Ghost can pass through. Set changes were quick, seamless, not distracting. Credit to set designer Don Zastoupil, and production assistant/prop master/director (is there anything she doesn’t do?) Olivia Harrison.
Live music is becoming a rarity in local theaters these days. So hats off to Camelot for utilizing live musicians. The music was just right for supporting this show – accompanying the vocals, and facilitating the dancing, without overpowering the singers or blasting the audience. In tune, melodious, and pleasing to listen to, even if not all the pieces were memorable chart toppers. Credit Music director, keyboardist John Taylor and percussionist Tom Freeman for providing the musical structure that furnishes the inertia to keep the show moving.
This show was tight, really well thought out and put together. And as noted above, it was incredibly well cast, including pulling performers out of the shadows to make them stars. The result of all this fine work, is to take what had been a critical and commercial disappointment on Broadway and elevate the same basic material so it has become a compelling, Five Star hit. Director Olivia Harrison – you have worked magic here and it is wonderful to see. Can’t wait for your next outing. And Artistic Director Roy Rains – well done in selecting a director and assembling a team to mount this production. Keep up the good work please!
Performances of Ghost, The Musical continue through March 26 at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Avenue, Talent, Thursday thru Saturday 8:00 pm, Sunday Matinees 2:00 pm. For tickets: order online at http://bit.ly/1EO71aR, or call the box office at 541-535-5250, or in person at 101 Talent Avenue, Talent, Oregon