'Ghost' finds new life on Broadway

Caissie Levy and Richard Fleeshman in the Broadway

Caissie Levy and Richard Fleeshman in the Broadway production of “Ghost the Musical” directed by Matthew Warchus. (Credit: Joan Marcus)

He never saw the car coming. It was 2011, and British actor Richard Fleeshman had been standing on a London street corner when -- suddenly -- he heard a commotion.

"I couldn't work out -- why is my shoe off? Why is everyone screaming? And why am I on the ground?" he says. "It was a proper out-of-body experience."

Details of the hit-and-run are still foggy. But what he remembers clearly is a doctor explaining his foot was broken, and he wouldn't be walking for three months.

But Fleeshman had just started rehearsals for the new musical, "Ghost," based on the popular 1990 film starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg. He was playing Swayze's role, banker Sam Wheat, who's abruptly transformed into a ghost after being shot in a mugging. Now life seemed to be imitating art. Fleeshman's world, like Sam's, had turned upside down in a flash, and he needed to heal in record time.

"I had to open a show in seven weeks, where I had to do jumps, back flips and fight scenes," he recalls.

Fleeshman is one of three young actors -- including Canadian Caissie Levy as his widow, Molly Jensen (the Moore role) and Philadelphia native Da'Vine Joy Randolph as psychic Oda Mae Brown (Goldberg's character) -- picked to transform the film into a stage spectacle. The production, with music and lyrics by popmeisters Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, and a book by Bruce Joel Rubin (who won an Oscar for the film's original screenplay), debuted in London last year. It opens at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre Monday.

And it is, in ways, unlike anything seen onstage before -- a heady mix of live performance, videotaped sequences and mind-bending illusions dating back to the Victorian era -- or beyond.

I AM SAM

In answer to your question -- whatever it is -- yes. Does the show include the film's crazy subway guy? Or the memorable theme song (the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody")? Or that infamous potter's wheel? Yes, yes and ohhh, yes.

Even much of the dialogue is the same -- like Sam's penchant for saying "ditto" in response to Molly's "I love you."

The only thing missing at the start of rehearsals last year . . . was Sam.

After being sideswiped by a car (the hit-and-run driver was never found), Fleeshman returned to rehearsals on crutches wearing a cast.

"And this is where it became sort of amazing, because we rehearsed without him there," says director Matthew Warchus. Fleeshman read his lines offstage, so "it was like he was invisible."

Fleeshman eventually sped a three-month recovery into seven weeks, stepping out of his cast the day of their first performance.

"There was no way I would let someone play Sam before me," says Fleeshman.

MOLLY 2.0

As Molly, Levy, 31, had two concerns: the wig, and potter's wheel. To her relief, she learned Moore's boyish film haircut was out -- the pottery scene, in. She started lessons immediately.

"I'm not the best, but I've learned enough to pull off the scene," she says, demonstrating in her dressing room by rolling, kneading and pounding clay into a ball.

"They used to be . . . like little tiny pots," says Fleeshman, stretched out on a nearby sofa. "But now these huge vases emerge."

"The thing is, I've never had to go beyond a certain point because -- well, spoiler alert -- I crush the pot in the scene," Levy admits.

Fleeshman and Levy's chemistry, onstage and in sexy, videotaped scenes shown on giant LED displays, seems genuine.

"She's my best friend," says Fleeshman.

"It's a role reversal," Levy concurs. "I was the newbie in London, and Richard was there for me. Now I get to return the favor."

A NEW ODA MAE

Randolph, 25, is also a newbie. A recent Yale drama school grad, she's making her Broadway debut in the role that earned Goldberg an Oscar for best supporting actress.

Of all the film's characters, Oda Mae -- a con artist who discovers genuine psychic powers, and tries to help Sam warn Molly of impending danger -- is perhaps the most memorable. Her lines ("Molly, you in danger, girl!") are printed on T-shirts sold in the lobby.

When she auditioned last year, Randolph assumed she was vying for an understudy role. Still, she was more excited about a Quentin Tarantino film she'd auditioned for. When her agent called, Randolph was in a Port Authority bathroom, applying makeup and waiting for a bus to New Jersey.

"My agent was, like, 'Are you sitting down?' " Randolph explains. "She's said that before. I was, like, 'Look, unless you tell me I got the Tarantino movie, I don't wanna hear it.' And she's, like . . . 'Ummm, you're gonna be on Broadway.' "

Randolph, stunned, called friends and relatives, but got voice mail. So she shared the experience with a Jamaican woman cleaning the sinks.

"She said, 'Hohhh, me darling, hi'm soooo happeee feh yuh,' " says Randolph, imitating the woman's accent. "I'll always remember that lady."

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

Audience members will likely remember the dazzling mix of videos and illusions. Master illusionist Paul Kieve designed the tricks, which allow Sam to appear, disappear and walk through doors, all using components like invisible wires, clever lighting, perhaps mirrors and sheer gauzy material -- Warchus is mum when it comes to specifics.

Such "magic" -- performed live -- is ultimately more intriguing than today's CGI techniques, he says.

"Illusions are happening in the same room as you," he says, "so the supernatural is present in a remarkable way."

He admits he once considered "Ghost" a "rather dated, cheesy romance, with an oft-parodied potter's wheel scene." Then he looked closer.

"Its roots are in 'Hamlet,' " he explains. "That's where Bruce Joel Rubin got the idea of an avenging ghost trying to put things right in the living world."

OK, "Molly, you in danger, girl!" may not equal "To be or not to be." But Warchus considers the show "groundbreaking," and "an example of all the things you can do onstage. The stage has always been a powerful medium, now more than ever. I just hope people don't forget that."

Ditto.

 

'Ghost' by the numbers

 

6,500+

Meters of fiber-optic cables on the set (four times the length of the Brooklyn Bridge).

 

1898

Year when the show's final illusion -- Sam's seeming to evaporate -- was created. (The trick's blueprints were lost until recently, and it

has been re-created only once before in the United States.)

 

150

Number of moving lights, two of which track Sam and Molly's movements from sensors worn by the actors.

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