An illusionist’s effects permeate ‘Ghost the Musical’
By Hedy Weiss Theater Critic January 5, 2014 7:54PM
Carla R. Stewart stars as the psychic Oda Mae Brown and Steven Grant Douglas portrays the other-worldly Sam in “Ghost The Musical.” | Photo ©Joan Marcus 2013
When: Tuesday through Jan. 19
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Tickets : $27-$95
Info: (800) 775-2000; BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
How do you conjure a ghost?
If you’re making a film — and movies, by their very nature, are a somewhat “ghostly” medium — the techniques are there for the choosing. Creating an otherworldly illusion in the theater is far trickier. After all, you’re dealing with flesh-and-blood actors who can’t just appear and disappear with the flick of a digital switch.
So, when British director Matthew Warchus began planning for “Ghost the Musical” (now in its initial U.S. tour, and set to play here Tuesday through Jan. 19 at the Oriental Theatre), he turned to fellow Englishman Paul Kieve, the man critic Michael Billington has dubbed “the invisible genius of British theater.”
Based on the hit 1990 “romantic fantasy thriller” film that starred Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg, “Ghost” is heavily dependent on an audience’s belief in the seen and unseen.
Kieve, an illusionist and magical special effects designer, was a natural.
Not only was he the only magician to have advised on the Harry Potter films, but he has applied his skills to such stage productions as “Matilda, the Musical,” the Broadway revival of “Pippin” and the newly revised version of “The Phantom of the Opera,” as well as to an earlier London production, “The Invisible Man,” a playful take on the H.G. Wells sci-fi story that earned him wide acclaim.
“I’ve been fascinated by magic since childhood,” said Kieve, who began as a performer. “I was taken to the theater often and loved big stage illusions. I still remember seeing a photo of ‘the zig-zag girl in a box,’ and then figuring out how to build it in a school woodworking class.”
Set in modern-day New York City, “Ghost” (with a book and lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin, and a score by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard) homes in on Sam and Molly, lovers who are mugged as they return to their apartment one night after a romantic dinner. Sam dies in the attack and becomes trapped as a ghost between this world and the next, unable to leave Molly behind. And after learning that she is in grave danger, Sam, with the help of a phony storefront psychic, Oda Mae Brown, tries to communicate with her in the hope of saving and protecting her.
“Theater and illusion are a bit like oil and water,” Kieve confessed. “But I’ve worked with Matthew Warchus for 18 years now, on everything from Shakespeare [whose plays are full of ghosts] to ‘Peter Pan.’ For ‘Ghost’ he wanted a beautiful love story with a filmic quality. During workshops for the show I went back to some of the stage techniques used for conjuring ghosts in Victorian theater. And I had the unprecedented gift of being able to devise illusions for the production before the set was designed.
“The whole idea is to create a sense of amazement in the audience using misdirection and concealment [the keys to illusion], and incorporating lighting, video, music, choreography, facial expressions. Of course timing is of the essence.”
While admitting that “comparisons to the film are inevitable,” Kieve said he was especially proud of the musical’s subway sequences.