Fantasyland on Broadway

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Up and down the East Coast and across the Midwest, mid-July was sweltering over the 100 degree mark. So what did my wife, Sue and I do? We hopped into our air-conditioned car and drove up to New York to see my first grandson a week after his birth. But aside from Tyler David Tannenbaum, a bona fide Facebook sensation, it turns out that the NYC metro area has a couple of other attractions. Before we made our U-turn and headed back to the Queen City, we took in a couple of Broadway shows.

Fittingly, in the spirit of escape — and the spirit of mass-market summer entertainment — we zeroed in on fantasy fare.

Caissie Levy and Richard Fleeshman as Molly and Sam in Ghost The Musical.  (Credit: The Hartman Group)
  • Caissie Levy and Richard Fleeshman as Molly and Sam in Ghost The Musical. (Credit: The Hartman Group)

Ghost The Musical (***1/4 out of 4) — Inventing his own cosmology while smartly merging the genres of suspense, comedy, and romance, Bruce Joel Rubin penned an appealing screenplay that garnered an Oscar for himself in 1990 and helped Whoopi Goldberg to a statuette of her own as bogus psychic Oda Mae Brown. He has deftly adapted the best of the movie while tenderizing Molly Jensen, the bereft and imperiled role that made Demi Moore a star, so that she’s less tediously skeptical — if only due to time constraints. Rubin and collaborators Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard are also competent lyricists, but none of the original Stewart-Ballard songs holds a candle to the memorable one on loan, the evergreen “Unchained Melody.”

Actually, the original melodies do more harm than good, easing Oda Mae down the road to R&B. With Da’vine Joy Randolph singing, shouting, and frustrating ghostly dreamboat Sam Wheat at every step, this psychic was nearer to Weezy Jefferson than the delightful Whoopi. But the chemistry between Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy, who starred as Sam and Molly in the West End production, was an absolute dream, a yummy mix of lust and romance. There is still poignancy in the mutual loss felt by the couple when Sam died; agonizing urgency when Sam tries to warn and protect Molly from his murderer, using Oda Mae as his medium; and sublimity when the lovers must finally part ways.

The other big plusses were in the technical realm. Sets by Rob Howell, lights by Hugh Vanstone, and video by Jon Driscoll were all exemplary. Without the illusions designed by Paul Kieve, however, we would have lost key moments in Sam’s struggling apprenticeship as a ghost — learning to move through doors, jumping onto a passing subway train, and making substantial objects move. Whether these advanced feats of stagecraft prevent Ghost from touring will have to be seen. But if the illusions are part of the touring package, Ghost could possibly prove as popular as Legally Blonde, another Broadway flop that overachieved on the road. (Closed on August 18)

David Rossmer, Adam Chanler-Berat, Carson Elrod, and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher.
  • David Rossmer, Adam Chanler-Berat, Carson Elrod, and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher.

Peter and the Starcatcher (**3/4) — While this declaration might be unduly sentimental for a theater critic, I should start out by saying that my frequent TV encounters with the musical version of Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard, were among the supreme joys of my childhood. Likewise, the joy of reading the original James M. Barrie novel as a bedtime story can be recommended as one of the supreme perks of parenthood. So the prospect of seeing an acclaimed Peter prequel on Broadway was irresistible. What I hadn’t realized was that Rick Elice’s script was based on a novel written by Dave Barry with Ridley Pearson.

Now I get Barry — and his weekly email newsletter, for that matter — well enough. But if you’re looking for someone to chime well with Barrie’s sense of fantasy and enchantment, or the Englishman’s flavorful zest for the primitive in Peter and The Admirable Crichton, Barry is not your man. Dave is definitely Elice’s man, and directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers are also simpatico with Barry’s brand of bratty playfulness. So Peter and the Starcatcher works far better as a wild deconstruct of storytelling and theatre than as a prequel.

Technically, there’s the same freewheeling sloppiness and transparency that were so endearing in the staging of The 39 Steps. Surrender to this minimalist spirit and a storyline that slaps together elements vaguely consonant with the Peter you know — orphans, kidnapping, adventure on the high seas, shipwreck, and a tropical island — and you’ll be fine. Replacing Tony Award winner Christian Borle, Matthew Saldivar does most of the heavy lifting in the comedy realm as Black Stache, the future Captain Hook. Often very funny — and often straining to please — Saldivar is probably more settled into his role by now.

Deep into Act 2, Starcatcher tacks suddenly toward dovetailing with Peter Pan, but it’s too little too late. Instead of fixing itself in the firmament, third-star-to-the-right with a calendar all its own, Neverland plops down on that tropic isle where Boy and Molly are beached with Stache. Throughout their adventures, Adam Chanler-Berat and Celia Keenan-Bolger retain a raffish charm as the leads. But even at the end of Starcatcher, Boy is a far cry from that special blend of gaiety, innocence, and heartlessness that is Peter. And Molly? Never remotely kindred to Wendy, let alone her mother, whose actual name was Mary. Apparently, the only name Elice and Barry were allowed to use from the original work was Smee, a reliable gauge of how enchanted you and your children will be when you exit the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

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