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Reviewed: Ghost: The Musical at The Little Theatre

Wigston Amateur Operatic Society bring a musical adaptation of the 1990 film to Leicester.

Sammy Williams (Molly) and Kieran Whelan-Newby (Sam) recreate Ghost's iconic scene. Photos by Lewis Hunt & Sarah Varnam.
Sammy Williams (Molly) and Kieran Whelan-Newby (Sam) recreate Ghost's iconic scene. Photos by Lewis Hunt & Sarah Varnam.

If, like me, you've never actually seen the movie Ghost (a realisation I only had as I sat down to watch this production), you're bound to know the pottery scene. Though if that's all you know, you know nothing about this story.

This adaptation, written by Bruce Joel Rubin, Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, is based on the 1990 Jerry Zucker film (also written by Rubin). When a young man is murdered, his spirit stays behind to warn his lover of impending danger, with the help of a reluctant psychic.

It's actually quite a simple story - really only centred around four characters - but the show comes with a level of technical spectacle that elevates the narrative to a grander level. I'm not a big fan of projected backdrops replacing practical sets - there's less "wow" factor when you first walk into the theatre - though I do understand that sometimes budget demands it, and in this instance, the projection is absolutely necessary to provide the New York flavour.

Niche was invited to watch the dress rehearsal of this production, ahead of its opening on Tuesday, May 16. As is typical of this arrangement, some technical cues weren't fully set, so I'll be looking passed those issues (all a normal part of the process, which will have been addressed by the time the public see it) to focus on the performances, direction and choreography.

I'll begin with choreography. Like Ellie Newbrooks on last month's Anything Goes, this is Lydia Rushton's first time as choreographer, but you wouldn't know it. It's really positive to see this new generation of choreographers coming through, and enhancing what is clearly a rich seam of talent for Leicestershire's amateur operatic community. Rushton uses the ensemble to convey the manic nature of New York's streets, the jubilant, Gospel-esque celebration of Oda Mae's change of fortune, or to illuminate the bigger numbers with spectacle and synchronicity. I look forward to seeing more of Rushton's work in future.

Oda Mae (Katie Wilson) and the ensemble perform "I'm Outta Here". Photos by Lewis Hunt & Sarah Varnam.
Oda Mae (Katie Wilson) and the ensemble perform "I'm Outta Here". Photos by Lewis Hunt & Sarah Varnam.

Ghost is quite a complicated story to bring to the stage, required to portray a non-corporeal ghost while stripped of movie-magic, but Sarah Varnam's direction is clever, wielding theatrical magic to fill the void. A stand out moment for me was Sam's death (spoiler alert, but if you couldn't work it out, it was coming from the title...), as it happened so quickly that I couldn't work out how it had been done. Similarly, I enjoyed the use of movement from the ensemble to signify a ghost being dragged to hell - simple, traumatic, and effective. Lighting is also used well throughout this production - Ghost Sam, for example, is exclusively lit in blue, giving him an eerie hue as he moves between the living.

Most importantly, Varnam keeps this as a very intimate story, and the emotional beats really do hit home. I found myself on the edge of tears during the finale - quite an impact considering I was the only audience member. The drama of the story is never lost, with key reveals carrying plenty of weight, and the music (under Kate Bale's direction) drawing you in by the heartstrings.

Sammy Willliams (Molly) and Kieran Whelan-Newby (Sam) in Ghost: The Musical. Photos by Lewis Hunt & Sarah Varnam.
Sammy Willliams (Molly) and Kieran Whelan-Newby (Sam) in Ghost: The Musical. Photos by Lewis Hunt & Sarah Varnam.

The soul of this story is the relationship between the two leads, Sam (Kieran Whelan-Newby) and Molly (Sammy Williams). Whelan-Newby and Williams have great chemistry together, and are easily capable of anchoring this production.

Williams delivers breath-taking and heart-breaking vocals (her performance in the finale is what had me close to tears), and depicts Molly's grief with truth and authenticity. I discovered during the interval that the fallback speakers were yet to be wired in (again, they will be by opening night), meaning the cast couldn't fully hear themselves - to have delivered this performance without them is incredible, so audiences are in for a treat this week.

Whelan-Newby is tasked with an extraordinary acting challenge: for 60% of this production, he's isolated from the rest of the cast, as Ghost Sam is unable to interact with the living. The Subway Ghost (Lucy Foreman) shows us what effect this isolation would have long-term, as it turns out even ghosts have mental health struggles. Whelan-Newby depicts this with a deft touch, showing Sam's desperation to keep Molly safe and his frustration at having to rely on others to do so. His confident singing voice and natural likeability means you want the best for the character... even after his death.

Katie Wilson as Oda Mae Brown.
Katie Wilson as Oda Mae Brown. Photos by Lewis Hunt & Sarah Varnam.

Katie Wilson brings endless charisma to the role of Oda Mae Brown - a psychic and medium, and the only living person who can hear Sam's voice. She takes on the other half of Whelan-Newby's acting challenge, as Wilson has to interact with his voice only, regularly pretending that she can't see the actor standing right beside her. She ably makes this believable, and her musical performances in "Are You A Believer?" and "I'm Outta Here" add some much-needed fun to this emotionally-heavy production.

The other key role is Paul Knight as Sam's friend and colleague, Carl Bruner. This proves to be a deliciously meaty role to play, with Knight portraying pretty much every emotion across the course of two hours. Knight plays the role superbly, and will certainly draw a response from audiences for his character's actions and motivations after Sam's death. Another confident singer, his chemistry with and vocals-complimentary-to the two leads are excellent.

The ensemble and featured characters add to the richness of this production and create much of the spectacle, with special mentions to the villainous Willie Lopez (Jay Kenney), the frantic Subway Ghost (Lucy Foreman), and the two nuns (Liz Hunt and Antonietta Derry), who get the show's biggest laugh with just two words.

One of the most emotional productions to grace The Little's stage this season, WAOS has created a beautiful show that's full of heart, while exploring grief, loss, and enduring love.

Ghost: The Musical is at The Little Theatre, May 16-20, 2023, with tickets available from the theatre website.


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