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Ghost — Media Theatre

GHOSTpic20153Jesse Cline has many talents as a theater director, but his forte is bringing characters forward and getting to the core of their personal stories.

The musical, “Ghost,” did not get the most favorable reception in either London nor New York. The by-the-numbers, you-heard-this-rhythm-before music by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard is tritely mediocre with few high points, surprising because of Stewart’s credentials with the rock group, The Eurythmics. The outstanding moments in Cline’s production derive less from a burst of inspired composition than from the sincere performances of Zack Krajnyak and Anna Giordano as “Ghost’s” leads. J.P. Dunphy nails a breakout opportunity in which he electrifies the Media stage with “Focus,” a number in which one ghost teaches another who use his spectral powers in more concrete ways. One song that will stay in your mind is the ’50s classic, “Unchained Melody” (from the 1955 prison movie, “Unchained”), because Krajnyak constantly croons the Al Hibbler-Righteous Brothers hit as his personal love song to Giordano.

If Stewart and Ballard’s score is unimpressive, “Ghosts” lyrics by the composers and Bruce Joel Rubin, are prime examples of why so many new musicals lack the luster of the days before rock replaced semi-classical as the basis for show music. Poetry or storytelling is absent in these abysmal songs that have all the beating heart of a petrified frog. Stewart, Ballard, and Rubin string the most hackneyed of sentimental phrases together and call it lyric. One gets tired of the kind of stock, banal thoughts that pepper these songs. “I must go on.” “I must be me.” “I love him so” “When will he know?” Not to mention that age-old favorite, the rhyming of “together” with “forever.” The songwriters chock their show with such artless, clichéd twaddle to the point you want to consign them to a special hell in which they are totally aware someone — Lorenz Hart? — is poking them incessantly with the points of a compass and whispering, “That’s for the damage you and your ilk are doing to the musical.”

OK, the lyrics are putrid. They stink more than the rotting clams at Egg Harbor. Yet redemption is possible. Rubin wrote the original screenplay for the 1990 movie, “Ghost,” the basis for this musical, and he transfers all of the romance and comedy of that script to his book. Jesse Cline, who is skilled at drawing out romance and in staging comedy makes the most this advantage. Krajnyak and Giordano are so believable as a couple deeply in love, you don’t worry about the words they’re singing and concentrate on the passion with which they’re expressing their characters’ feelings. Yes, a lot of what they sing might be just as effectively spoken, but Krajnyak’s emotion and Giordano’s inner thoughts, combined with her splendidly pitched, mellifluous voice make the composers’ drivel palatable and even moving. When Rubin’s script dominates, Cline’s “Ghost” will touch your heart and make you care mightily for Sam and Molly, the characters Krajnyak and Giordano play. You want to see them conquer the calamity that separated them, Sam being killed in a mugging and Molly mourning inconsolably in shock. You want their romance to continue, just as many of us hope deceased loved ones can hear us even if we know how scientifically absurd that particular common desire is.

Cline, through Krajnyak and Giordano, makes “Ghost” affecting. This Media production can elicit tears as more and more leads to the lovers being reunited in a tactile, tangible way.

This is important for several reasons. Rubin’s 1990 film proves “Ghost” has the ability to be classically romantic, but his story has to be cut down some to be palpable as a musical. A director, faced with this material, has to keep from ever seeming corny, overworked, or unsophisticated. The love projected has to be strong, and the plot elements that threaten that love, especially a nasty crime scenario like the one that permeates “Ghost,” has to play as a genuine danger and not like an expedient complication or convenient menace. Cline adroitly avoids all pitfalls. He maximizes the passion and romantic honesty in Rubin’s book. Krajnyak and Giordano appear so fervently and sincerely in love, you begin to believe their relationship extends to off-stage. The two have candid rapport, not only when the speak to each other or sing together, but when they look at one another or think about their past happiness after Sam is murdered. The unaffected reality Cline and his cast establish overrides any clichéd or easily predictable part of Rubin’s story.

Palpable, affecting romance is only the beginning of how Cline’s “Ghost” pushes aside compositional flaws and shows why in the theater, the individual production is always more important than a script or score (which come under the categories of literature and music, not theater). Let me tell you about Tamara Anderson.

Anderson has the unenviable task of playing the role for which the incomparable Whoopi Goldberg earned an Oscar for “Ghost.” Oda Mae Brown is another character than can fall prey to type or cliché. Tamara Anderson does not let that happen.

From the beginning, when we see Oda Mae in her Spanish Harlem juju parlor, ferreting out enough information to convince gullible dupes she is communing with the dead — people they want to contact for reasons ranging from expressions of love to apologies for causing the deceased’s demise — Anderson shows all the signs of the cunning con artist. She can reassure with the best of them. Anderson’s reaction is also excellent when he she does hear from a dead person, Sam, who then realizes he can involve Oda Mae in a strategy to foil his killers, rescue Molly from likely harm, and keep the sidewalk psychic safe and out of jail as well.

Without doing anything large or outlandish, Anderson is consistently funny in her part. Oda Mae’s sense of self-preservation, and her smell of a decent payday, is all Anderson needs to play her part with the finesse of a flim-flammer but with the comic timing and astute broadness of Lucille Ball or Flip Wilson.

Anderson is not subtle. You don’t want her to be. But he is clever enough to let the comedy play out naturally just by giving Sam a dubious look or acting Oda Mae’s kind of grand at a bank or imagined jewelry store. Anderson blends a top comedian’s bag of tricks with strict adherence to characterization, and the result is hilarious in the best way, with laughs being earned and not forced, with the character coming through ahead of the clowning.

Anderson provides some marvelous moments. Best is when she realizes she has survived a shooting that could have spelled her doom. It’s the pride Anderson shows in a totally natural way that elicits laughs as well as relief at Oda Mae overcoming her perilous ordeal. In scenes opposite Molly, with Sam providing the dialogue, Anderson conveys authenticity, both when she is listening and communicating and when he shows impatience at Molly’s doubt.

Anderson’s is a fine-etched complete performance that knows when to pull out all stops and when to keep the acting to a human, realistic level. And, yes, she gets a rousing, house-shaking number in “I’m Outta Here” near the end of the second act.

NealBox“Ghost” presents some technical and choreographic conundrums. Sam, being invisible and corporeally malleable, has to glide through doors. He has to learn to use some tangible powers a ghost is afforded, such as being able to touch another person or inhabit a living person’s body. Then, of course, there’s the issue of corpses, characters who have dialogue and whose parts require motion, after they have been shot to death.

Cline addresses all of these challenges brilliantly, physically and theatrically.

To attain some of the effect he needs, he enlists his designers. Carl Park has created standard sounds that indicate when Sam is coming through a solid object such as a door or subway car. (It’s like a high frequency radio squeal that settles into a tight and scratchy sound.) He also has developed a distinct sound, sort of like the whoosh you hear when superheroes fly or land a haymaker punch, for when the subway ghost is manhandling Sam or teaching him to use his ghost-given powers. Matthew Miller contributes by keeping all surfaces Sam has to negotiate clear and unobstructed. This allows sound and movement to do the trick. As Krajnyak contorts his way through a door and you hear Park’s scratchy notes of effort, you have the impression the door is solid, and Sam is using ghostly traits to gain entrance. Krajnyak is also good at showing how Sam has to think about and work towards achieving some ghostly feat the first time he does and how simple the same feat is when needed subsequently.

Cline intelligently works through other thorny factors. Several people are killed in “Ghost.” Sam’s death triggers Rubin’s premise for the piece and sets the show’s main action in motion. The other deaths are applaudable, because they mean the lives of other, better liked, characters will be spared, but they can, again, become corny or even bring up moral questions (the answer to which the deaths are the better theatrical course because any other way of foiling the bad guys would end the play before its optimum romantic conclusion).

When I went to pay compliments after seeing this performance, Cline told me this production was built “from scratch,” meaning he derived it totally from the book and music and used no other previous productions, or the movie, as a model.

The care shows. The ways the newly dead corpses arise from their stilled bodies is enough to make you admire the thought, adroitness, and theatrical savvy of Cline’s staging. So many ideas work to make this “Ghost” affecting, including Cline’s usual fearlessness about having characters embrace, kiss, or, on the opposite side, engage in combat. Zack Krajnyak and J.P. Dunphy’s physicality add to the excitement of this production. Their scenes in a subway car and on a subway platform are intense, even scary, as they bring out the emotion even a ghost can feel when considering the cause of his death or a mission he must accomplish before he is no longer a ghost and assigned to some otherworldly place for eternity.

I liked that Krajnyak, Dunphy, Seth Thompson, Nicholas Savarine, and others who portrayed ghosts emphasized the solidity of their bodies instead of trying to figure the posture and movements of an ectoplasmic form. The naturalness of their physical beings preserved some core of reality and make some scenes more palpable or touching.

All the performers, from the leads to Megan Rucidlo and Geoffrey Bruen in the chorus, contribute to the success of this production. Ensemble scenes were very well played, and choreographer Dann Dunn gives his dancers a wonderful number with umbrellas that reminds us we are watching a musical and not a romantic drama with songs.

Anna Giordano is extraordinary as Molly. Jesse Cline is known for having enlisted a cadre of actresses with strong voices and acting chops — Elisa Matthews, Jennie Eisenhower, Lauren Cupples, Victoria Mayo, Megan Rucidlo, Kim Carson, and the remarkable Miss Ann Crumb — and Giordano is a worthy addition to their distinguished number.

The purity and spontaneity of her voice, two distinct traits that blend together for both a beautiful and engaging sound, informs all of Molly’s numbers so that sincerity trumps trite lyrics. Like Matthews and Liz Filios, who just finished a run in Theatre Horizon’s “Into the Woods,” Giordano’s initial notes are bell-clear. There’s no building to power. It’s there from the start. Yet intensity gets greater, and songs have more emotional impact.

Giordano makes you share Molly’s pain and grieving. There’s no half-measure here, no actress pretending to depth. Giordano makes Molly’s plight tangible, and you travel with her as she doubts the supernatural and spurns sentimentality and when she needs to have Sam’s company, even if it’s in the form of a picture or the scent of a shirt he wore, and comes to the realization Sam is spiritually with her and able to communicate.

Cline and Dunn stage a lovely sequence in which Oda Mae, inhabiting Sam’s body in her own, dances between the two of them and lets them a have an effective romantic interlude without anyone actually touching another. It’s theatrical heaven. Literally.

Zack Krajnyak is a man of determination as Sam. He solidly brings the drive and skill he uses as a successful investment banker on Wall Street to the fore in Sam’s investigation of the crime that killed him and in his zealous protection of Molly and Oda Mae.

Though young-looking, Krajnyak conveys the competence and confidence Sam displays in all walks of his life. His least sure path is with Molly, who is a little too astute and game for some of his tricks and outspoken about his resistance to confess his emotions out loud. Krajnyak gives Sam undoubtable veracity when she responds to Molly, “You see it in my eyes. You feel in my touch.”

Krajnyak sings with assurance and has a sweet rock voice that can register sincerity and emotion, but it is in his watchful, physical, discerning performance as Sam that he grabs your attention and respect.

This is a Sam who will not let go until he has unraveled every mystery, corrected every injustice, homicidal or financial, and guaranteed the safety of the woman he loves and the woman whose unexpected talents as a medium serve him so opportunely.

Krajnyak is a romantic. He nuzzles Giordano’s Molly with warm, playful affection and moves in for kisses and more with the deftness of a practiced, but sincere, Romeo. There is definitely a frisson of pheromones in action when Krajnyak and Giordano are displaying their mutual feelings for each other.

Tamara Anderson provides more than comic relief. She personifies comedy, period.

It takes talent and discipline to be large and forthcoming without overdoing, and Anderson manages just that. Her Oda Mae is a firecracker, and she has several comic scenes to ace, but Anderson keeps her human and self-preserving and that is the crux of her excellent performance.

Anderson can give a character a withering look or she can flirt. She can show unhappy surprise at having her body inhabited by a ghost, or she can delight in it. She can go through all kinds of ritzy but naïve moves to impress a bank representative, but she can be down -to-earth and caring when it comes to listening to concerns she knows are real and deep-seated.

Best of all, Anderson is downright entertaining. She knows how to make her scenes pay while also knowing when to back off and give Krajnyak and Giordano, or Seth Thompson’s duplicitous Carl, the stage.

Sean Thompson has proven his mettle on the Media stage several times in the past years. He has gone from an innocent member of the Plaids to a sharp, observant, but willing-to-be-spoiled gigolo in “Sunset Boulevard” and has among the actors who made Cline’s “Les Misérables” such as triumph in December.

Thompson plays Carl, Sam’s coke-snorting bank colleague who supports his drug habit by embezzling and laundering his dealer’s profits, without a shred of remorse or guilt. Like many a criminal, he views himself a victim of circumstance, forced to do evil because he innocently went too far with his addictions and debts to the underworld.

Thompson’s Carl shows his jealousy of Sam from the beginning. He covets his friend’s higher position and better reputation at the bank and his relationship with Molly. We see it in side glances and odd grimaces, but he hides his envy from Sam and Molly. To them he is the true blue friend, the rock they can depend on in need, especially because he is uncommitted to much (except cocaine, which Sam and Molly don’t know about) except them and his work.

Thompson’s Carl portrays none of his perfidy. Instead of conveying guilt, he shows cold business acumen, working to correct the mess he made over the orchestrated assault of Sam and keeping himself from suffering the wrath of drug lords to whom he owes millions or the humiliation of a prison cell.

By remaining calculating and being warm, sympathetic, and even flirtatious towards Molly, Thompson manages to keep Carl more sinister than if he played him as an all-out creep. His composure makes him more ominous and dangerous.

Thompson is another whose voice and acting ability can improve and song, a trait he tests and master in performing Stewart and Ballard’s offal.

J.P. Dunphy galvanizes the stage with his arresting performance as a subway ghost, a man who was killed by being pushed in front of a moving train and seems to be in perpetual limbo until he can prove his death was not a suicide as reported. Unlike Sam, Dunphy’s ghost is angry and fiercely territorial. He rides the D train and will admit no other ghost in his domain.

The subway ghost has developed a way to push people and land punches. He can be physical and, as costumed by Katie Yamaguchi is a black leather jacket opened to reveal a plain white wife-beater undershirt, seems to have a taste, and even a yen, for violence.

Eventually, Sam coaxes the subway to teach him how to make his presence felt. The lesson leads to the number, “Focus,” in which Dunphy excels and gets the chance to break free of his usual home, the chorus, and show both his ability to command the stage and dominate a complicated number that involves intense acting and sharp choreographic moves. As mentioned, Carl Park’s sound effects also bring strength to Dunphy’s number, which Dann Dunn choreographs to bring out the subway ghost’s tense, coiled, finally expressed bite.

Nicholas Savarine appears in three distinct parts, all of which he plays with individuality. He is plain-spoken yet self-effacingly amused as the ghost that introduces Sam to his new spectral quality. He is efficient and persuasively denigrating as the police officer who tells Molly about Oda Mae’s long and colorful rap sheet. He find the right posture and tone as the first ghost that takes over Oda Mae’s body at a séance Sam, who has led other ghosts to the medium, uses his newly acquired focus to break up.

A.J. Melendez is perfect as the rat Carl and his mob contacts set up to scare Sam, Molly, and Oda Mae. The actor never breaks character to be sympathetic or apologetic even though everything in the script says he was only supposed to make Sam more cooperative is staying out of Carl’s way and not to kill him. (Sam initiates his fate by wrestling with Melendez’s punk instead of handing over his wallet and walking away during a street robbery arranged by Carl.)

Dunn”s ensemble of dancers do their part well and, as noted, remind us we are watching a musical. Christopher Ertelt conducted a fine group of musicians through “Ghost’s” score.

Jesse Cline’s penchant for using slides and videos to enhance productions has never worked for integrally. You get a real feeling of where Molly lives, where Oda Mae operates. and where Dunphy’s subway ghost reigns. Troy Martin O’Shia’s light displays, as well, as his light design, give Cline’s production a sense of the occult and add to its texture. The dazzling light when Sam contemplates his fate, and the shadows after each death are masterfully and evocatively done. Matthew Miller’s cleverness in set design adds to the authenticity of this production. The large picture window that serves to let light into Sam and Molly’s loft becomes the screen for Cline’s projections.

Two cavils. As happens through Philadelphia theater, the mikes are often set too hot and have  the opposite of amplication’s intended effect. The overamping obliterates sounds and makes actors sound unintelligible instead of modulating tones and making sure the actors are heard. Also, in one major sequence, Molly stands still for 10 minutes in a position that keeps a lot of the house left audience from seeing  critical action upstage. This can be corrected by moving Molly a foot stage right. It would open the sight line while keeping the tension of the actors’ positions in relation to one another.

“Ghost” works at the Media because Jesse Cline and his cast concentrated on Rubin’s story and made the characters and romance the centerpiece of the production with Tamara Anderson’s deft comedy as a bonus. As he did with “The Wild Party” and other shows, Cline finds the value in “Ghost” and doesn’t let its musical or lyrical deficiencies stand in his way of making involving theater. Not all plays can have the built-in qualities of “Les Misérables,” “The Miracle Worker,” or next season’s “Billy Elliot” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Cline and company give “Ghost” renewed life and prove it is a piece that earns a place on theater rosters. Stewart and Ballard did not make the chore easy, but a honest portrayal of sincere romance won out. Thank goodness.

“Ghost” runs through Sunday, March 29, at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, in Media, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $42 with discounts available for seniors and students and VIP seating offered at a premium. They can be obtained by calling 610-891-0100 or by visiting www.mediatheatre.org.

 

 

 

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