Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On Broadway: New Musicals "Ghost," "Leap of Faith," "Nice Work If You Can Get It"

With Richard Fleeshman, Caissie Levy, Bryce Pinkham, Da’Vine Joy Randolph
Music and lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard
Book and lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Previews began March 15, 2012; opened April 22
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Leap of Faith
Starring Raul Esparza, Jessica Phillips
Book by Warren Leight and Janus Cercone
Lyrics by Glenn Slater; music by Alan Menken
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Previews began April 3, 2012; opened April 25
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY

Nice Work If You Can Get It
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Kelli O’Hara, Judy Kaye, Estelle Parsons, Michael McGrath, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Terry Beaver, Robyn Hurder, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Chris Sullivan
Music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
Book by Joe DiPietro
Choreographed and directed by Kathleen Marshall
Previews began March 29, 2012; opened April 24
Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Ghost The Musical (photo by Shawn Ebsworth Barnes)
 The most memorable part of Ghost, the 1990 romantic fantasy with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, was the song “Unchained Melody,” which accompanied the scene the movie’s fans swoon over: the heroine doing pottery while her dead husband’s spirit wraps his arms around her.

That scene stands out in the negligible musical adaptation that’s now on Broadway, following other movie-into-musical transformations like The Producers, Hairspray, Urban Cowboy, and the current Leap of Faith (reviewed below). If any movie was not crying out for musicalization, it’s Ghost: the insufferable story of a cute New York couple (an artist and Wall Street wizard) whose love is put to the test when he inconveniently dies rang up hundreds of millions at the box office and Oscars for Bruce Joel Rubin’s cloying script and Whoopi Goldberg’s sassy turn as the fake medium through whom our hero speaks in order to let his beloved know A) who murdered him and—sniff, sniff—B) that he loves her forever.

Those who loved the movie might enjoy the musical, which follows the plot closely enough, while becoming even more sentimental than the original with its several false endings. That the leads are neither Swayze nor Moore doesn’t matter—even if Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy are better singers than actors—and that Whoopi’s not around isn’t a liability either: Da’vine Joy Randolph ratchets up the sass and drags the willing audience with her in a scene-stealing performance, but the accolades she’s getting are more for her indestructible comic character than what she brings.

The music and lyrics, a motley crew operation by the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, pop balladeer Glen Ballard and the movie’s writer Rubin, are so forgettable that the lone song worth humming is the haunting “Unchained Melody,” which returns so often that it too becomes annoying.

That leaves Matthew Warchus’ jazzed-up (or rocked-up) staging, which comprises the cleverness of Jon Driscoll’s videos and projections and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, Bobby Aiken’s snazzy sound design, Rob Howell’s souped-up sets, Paul Kieve’s haunting illusions and Ashley Wallen’s energetic choreography. Such a glittery but empty physical production makes Ghost more of a rock concert than a real Broadway musical. 

Raul Esparza (center) in Leap of Faith (photo by Joan Marcus)
Another unnecessary transformation of a movie into a stage musical, the messy Leap of Faith never allows its talented star Raúl Esparza’s singing, dancing and charismatic presence to cut loose from its schematic story. The original movie starred Steve Martin as Jonas Nightengale, an evangelist huckster who travels to small towns to jilt naïve believers of their hard-earned money, only to meet his match in the form of a single mom and her wheelchair-bound son. The intermittently amusing movie never found a balance for its sly humor and the sentiment piled on as Jonas’ well-oiled scam goes off the rails.

The musical has even more trouble with this central relationship because book writers Warren Leight and Janus Cercone never make the characters anything more than stick figures tossing off would-be witty lines, while our hero and his intended marks have no onstage spark. As the boy Jake, Talon Ackerman is tolerable enough, but Jessica Phillips is frightfully wooden as his mother Marla (who is also the sheriff, unlike the movie, where the sheriff was played by Liam Neeson and Lolita Davidovich—remember her?—was Marva).

And while Esparza has charisma to burn, he’s hampered by his less than stellar co-stars and, more damagingly, Alan Menken’s score without a single outstanding song. (Esparza does sing the hell out of his big dramatic number, the climactic “Jonas’ Soliloquy,” but he deserves more credit than Menken does.) What Esparza does best is also scuttled by the gospel-dominated show, which inserts too many joyous tunes for the chorus and leather-lunged Kecia Lewis-Evans (as Jonas’ protective den mother) to belt out periodically, whether or not the situation calls for it.

Such schizophrenic playing against its star’s strengths is among many problems plaguing Leap of Faith, despite being cannily choreographed by Sergio Trujillo and flashily directed by Christopher Ashley. Jokes about atheist New Yorkers and video cameras that show audience members on the theater’s TV monitors most likely won’t bring in the needed tourist trade for this wobbly show to run.

O'Hara and Broderick in Nice Work If You Can Get It (photo by Joan Marcus)
 The jukebox musical has worked for the songs of composers from Billy Joel to Abba, so why not George Gershwin? Actually, Gershwin’s songs were already used in Crazy for You, a hit on Broadway in the distant 1990s. So a “new” Gershwin musical, Nice Work If You Can Get It, smacks of opportunism, plain and simple.

Happily, Nice Work If You Can Get It is a funny, frothy concoction that entertains while inviting audiences to hum its classic tunes, a rarity on Broadway since today’s musicals have everything in place but good songs. Here’s an embarrassment of riches, from the title tune to “They All Laughed,” nicely arranged by David Chase and gloriously played by a full orchestra.

Then there’s savvy director Kathleen Marshall’s delicious choreography, Derek McLane’s wonderful sets, Martin Pakledinaz’s flashy costumes, Peter Kaczorowski’s limber lighting, and Joe DiPietro’s goofily amusing book, which apes glitzy ‘30s musicals that teamed a resourceful gal (here a Depression era rum-runner) who snares the “unavailable” guy (here a rich momma’s boy about to marry the fourth time).

Along with first-rate trappings and songs, the performers—for the most part—are also up to snuff. The men and women of the chorus have enough varied personalities to become the polar opposite of the homogeneity that infects today’s musical choruses.

As an anti-alcohol crusader who gets drunk, veteran showstopper Judy Kaye has a sublimely silly chandelier-swinging moment, and Kaye and Michael McGrath (as the heroine’s sidekick posing as a butler) marvelously play off each other during “Looking for a Boy.” If Jennifer Laura Thompson alternately apes Madeleine Kahn and Megan Mullalhy, that’s pretty good company, while Estelle Parsons strides onstage to hilariously close the show as our hero’s domineering mother.

Our stars stick to their strengths—Kelli O’Hara’s “everygal” look and Matthew Broderick’s not-so-eternal youth—but their chemistry is obvious as they climb all over the furniture during “S Wonderful,” turning it into a goofy mini-masterpiece of dance. Broderick’s mined the “boy-man” role for too long but gets away with it once more: it helps that he’s beside the spectacular Kelli O’Hara, one of our musical treasures.

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