For two hours or so, Ghost: The Musical may have you believing in life after death. But the show’s premiere regional staging at the Drama Learning Center in Columbia enjoyably proves the case for its life after Broadway.
And speaking of immortality — how about a big hand for film composer Alex North, whose 1955 tune for “Unchained Melody” again plays a dramatic role here, and still manages to move an audience to tears.
Bruce Joel Rubin, screenwriter of the top-grossing 1990 movie Ghost, adapted the story for the stage in 2011, with new music and lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard. Ghost: The Musical earned solid reviews in London and ran over a year, although a Broadway version only managed 136 performances before giving up the ghost in 2012. A national tour stopped through Baltimore last April.
The Drama Learning Center is the first local theater to seek stage rights to the piece for its TYA (Teaching Young Actors) production wing. And you can believe this: It won’t be the last.
Even in the sometimes-timid hands of TYA’s teen actors, the storytelling comes on strong, thanks to a central situation we care about and a small but vivid cast of players.
First, there are the two young lovers, Sam and Molly, whose excitement with each other and the promise of their future is so enduring that even a sudden act of violence can’t end the relationship. Sam’s spirit lingers on, and then finds a greater purpose in trying to solve his own murder before the killer returns for Molly.
Then there is Carl, Sam’s ambitious friend and business associate, whose ocean of devotion to Sam only extends to the shores of his own agenda.
And finally, there is Oda Mae Brown, the testy African-American psychic who is shaken to find her talent for defrauding the living has actually masked a rarer gift for channeling the dead. This is the role that won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar, and it will likely go on stealing the show in every production hence.
Certainly that happens at DLC, where the fully mature singing and comedy talents of guest artist Felicia Akunwafor provide the audience almost continual delight and amazement. Whether leading a gospel-like ensemble in “Are You a Believer?” or slapping down hecklers outside of Molly’s apartment, Felicia is a force for pure enjoyment.
It takes our Sam and Molly (Josh Altenberg and Claire Cerand) a bit longer to warm up the audience. For some reason, they move through the opening number (“Here Right Now”) as if in a trance. Their singing sounds solid from what we can hear, but they do not project out, and some of their lyrics are delivered with their backs to the audience as they travel upstage.
Both of these exerienced performers more fully inhabit their roles later on. Josh does a wonderful job with a ukulele solo singing “Unchained Melody” to Molly, for example, and is terrific at gaining our sympathy with his sense of loss and confusion.
Claire’s Molly is also a most appealing creation, and with her big emotional Act I solo, “With You,” she manages to erase all early misgivings over her hesitation.
It’s always a pleasure watching Seth Fallon perform, and his role as the driven, two-faced Carl never appears too much of a stretch, even for this fresh-faced actor. Alex Rothfield is also a show-stealer in the role of the dangerously volatile Subway Ghost, who seems fully on top of the show’s trickiest illusions.
Those special ghostly effects are well integrated by “illusionist” Brian M. Kehoe. The multi-platformed stage set and scene-setting background projections are professionally tailored to the Red Branch stage by veteran Maryland designer Terry Cobb.
Costumes are well envisioned by Amy R. Weimer, especially the gaudy outfits that are the hallmark of Oda Mae and her Psychettes. The choreography by Adeline Sutter and the fight routines staged by Erin McDonald both contribute to the colorful non-stop movement of the show.
On Saturday, the live musical accompaniment by Tiffany Underwood Holmes and a three-piece ensemble sounded a bit less focused than in past shows, but was always dependably on cue and well timed.
All in all, Director Stephanie Lynn Williams has done another superb job deploying her youthful cast to keep the proceedings lively.
Running Time: About two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.