Review: Tantalizing ‘Ghost’ never fully takes shape

The people behind “Ghost The Musical” had a dilemma. The immortal “Unchained Melody” backs the most memorable scene in the 1990 movie “Ghost,” where the dead hero “embraces” his lover at a pottery wheel.

That song had to go into the Broadway show, or audiences would feel cheated. But that meant all the new songs by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard would be measured against it, and those are bland or generic.

So the producers amped up the visual elements, dazzling us with clever rear projections, impressive feats of poltergeist magic and an effective light show. The result? An excitingly empty outing that never needed to be a musical at all.

Bruce Joel Rubin, who wrote the film script, adapted it himself. The mix of comedy, drama (really melodrama), spiritualism and terror comes off less smoothly here, when it stops for production numbers.

At one moment, sassy psychic Oda Mae Brown (Carla R. Stewart) is strutting through the flashy “I’m Outta Here.” Five minutes later, we’re supposed to tremble with anxiety as the ghostly Sam (Steven Grant Douglas) tries to prevent Molly (Katie Postotnik) from catching a bullet.

Though the show’s official theme is the undying nature of true love, its real purpose is to demonstrate the merger of cash and visual creativity. (There’s a reason it wasn’t nominated for a Tony in the book, musical or score categories but was nominated for lighting and scenic design.)

Within the first three minutes, dozens of photos of Sam and Molly “fly” toward us, a panorama of the city swirls behind them onscreen, and their silhouettes seem to dance among the clouds. Director Matthew Warchus likes to have people move against a synchronized background of shadows, an effect that suggests we’re surrounded by ghosts who have unfinished business with us.

The lighting really does make Douglas seem ethereal, and his performance almost makes the character three-dimensional. (Sam displays only earnestness and anger.) Douglas has chemistry both with the plaintive Postotnik and with Robby Haltiwanger, who plays Sam’s smarmy/schmoozy pal.

Stewart delivers a broad, audience-pleasing rendition of a part I hadn’t remembered as such a buffoon. (If you found Whoopi Goldberg too subtle in the film, this is for you.) Brandon Curry has a strong presence as Sam’s unwilling mentor, the tormented Subway Ghost; he’s the only character who suggests purgatory may be pretty close to Hell.

And what of the score’s most famous number? Sam sings it to Molly as a joke early in Act 1, then briefly as a howl of pain in that act, then finally joins her in a soft, sweet duet at the finale. But it makes its greatest impact when the pottery wheel comes out, he approaches her from behind, and the Righteous Brothers’ glorious rendition soars out from Molly’s radio. Then we remember why we loved “Ghost” in the first place, 24 years ago.