— At one moment in "Ghost,"the cold, over-produced and structurally lazy new musical from London that resembles more a metallic Times Square theme-park ride than a legitimate show with heart, the initially skeptical character of Molly (Caissie Levy) suddenly senses that maybe, just maybe, her loving husband Sam (Richard Fleeshman) has come back to her from the dead.
Those who remember the 1990 source movie, which starred the late Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, will recall the plot. A nice hunk of a guy in love with a potter with a pixie cut is the victim of the machinations of a fiscal underling and ends up dead on the street, his love bereft. But due to the force of his feelings and with the help of a psychic — played on screen by Whoopi Goldberg — he begins to communicate with his sweetie, helping save her from the same nasty types who did him in, especially the duplicitous former colleague (now played, malevolently, by Bryce Pinkham).
Our fervent if fantastical wish that our lives, and the lives of those we love, don't end with death has informed musicals since the form was invented. It is the heartbeat of "Carousel," one of the greatest musicals of all. So that moment in "Ghost" — not so different, really, from the instant Julie Jordan senses Billy Bigelow standing before her — should put a lump in your throat. And for a second, it does (it's why the movie made plenty of people cry). But in this instance, it's quickly replaced by resentment that a show has co-opted and manipulated such an exquisitely raw and potent device, a vulnerable place for any audience where no show should casually tread, and used it so carelessly, tossing away the human vulnerability for a slew of harsh, digitized illusions.
There is so much wrong with "Ghost," it's hard to know where to start. Bruce Joel Rubin's book does not allow us to see the lovable side of Sam before he dies, therefore we're insufficiently invested in his return; the score by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard (with Rubin) has mundane, repetitive music and simplistic lyrics; the two leads, imported with the show from the U.K., lack gravitas, maturity, sensuality and accessible emotions. The dramaturgical holes gape wide: The nature and rules of Sam's apparent limbo (purgatory?) are never consistently applied. One minute he's flying, the next he's walking off into the sunset, sans purpose. I was never sure whether this was New York of 22 years ago or the high-tech Gotham of today.
But most significantly, this is a show done in by its visuals, mostly the work of Rob Howell and Jon Driscoll, who create such a frigid, hard-edged, nontemporal and thoroughly inhuman palette for all the digital scenery that the world is just too chilly to accommodate what should, fundamentally, be a warmhearted romance. And why the director, Matthew Warchus, saw merit in adding to the ensemble with digital dancers, and why he felt it useful to constantly throw up on a screen pictures of that which the characters are singing about, even when the topic of the lyric is sea crabs, beggars belief.
"Ghost" is a head-scratcher in all the wrong ways. The crowd-pleaser, to the extent that anything pleases here, is Da'Vine Joy Randolph, playing the Goldberg-fueled psychic. Randolph has a big voice, a strong personality and a funny bag of tricks. But like the rest of this enterprise, they feel cold, inorganic and connected to little or nothing.
"Ghost" plays on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.; 877-250-2929 or ghostonbroadway.com.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times