Piccadilly Theatre, London W1
Opened 15 July, 2011

If the 1990 movie of love and crime-fighting from beyond the grave were a song, it would be a 127-minute power ballad, so songwriters Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard’s first priority here has surely been to take every opportunity to break with that genre. They are fairly successful: with the duplicitous character of Carl and the banking/scam business they can use more driving rock, reluctant medium Oda Mae Brown occasions blaring soul numbers, and so on. But the principal theme, Sam and Molly’s inextinguishable love, keeps pulling them back towards AOR at the very least, and often right into that territory in which people express their yearning in a disproportionately full-throated manner.
Bruce Joel Rubin’s big task in adapting his own screenplay has been how to deal with That Scene: you know the one, potter’s wheel, “Unchained Melody” and tempests of passion. This has been dealt with astutely by all concerned. Clearance has been obtained to use the song itself (the show would have been unthinkable without it), but it never appears straight: first, Sam delivers a ludicrous late-period-Elvis parody, wooing Molly through laughter; when the potter’s wheel scene belatedly appears in Act Two, the song is interrupted by the arrival of Carl. It also appears as counterpoint in a couple of the original numbers.
This is emblematic of the overall approach: where, say, Dirty Dancing across the West End is pitched as a live re-creation of the movie, this is more of a tribute. Director Matthew Warchus is diligent in fashioning a primarily theatrical experience, albeit with three coarse-grained video walls and a number of ideas that seem to have been inspired by the show Enron. Paul Kieve creates some fine illusions of incorporeality, aided by Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design. Richard Fleeshman and Caiisie Levy feel more humanly personable and less airbrushed as Sam and Molly compared to their originals, Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. Sharon D Clarke is a blowsier Oda Mae than Whoopi Goldberg, but with all the comic skills and a rightly admired powerful singing voice. Curiously, the show’s moderate success is grounded in setting out not to hit particular targets: not to reproduce the sensations of the film, not to be a massive spectacle in its own right, but to be efficiently evocative of both. In some ways the most surprising moment of all is when awareness of mood overrides stage-musical conventions by eschewing an encore.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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