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Stage Review: iGhost

Early this week we attended one of two staged readings of iGhost at the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood. Although billed as a “new” musical, this updated adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s story “The Canterville Ghost” has actually been knocking around for a few years, at least according to one announcement made before the show. The performance at NoHo was without sets or costumes – which is a bit disappointing, because one of the joys of the Arts Center (one of the best local theatres in Los Angeles) is the clever way they utilize their limited space (as in their production of Dracula earlier this year); however, the majority of the story is conveyed through song, so even without the theatrical trappings, the cast managed to bring this ghost to life.

Tuesday’s performance of iGhost got off to a slow start with a narrator (Nancy Van Iderstine) reading scenic descriptions of the stage settings and action, but if you closed your eyes it was almost like listening to an old radio play, with your imagination filling in details not visible on stage. The story follows a young art student, Virginia Otis (Rebecca Johnson) who comes to Canterville Castle on a work program. The castle, of course, is haunted: Sir Simon (Kevin Bailey) has been raging for nearly 100 years, since being cursed by his wife Lucinda Lillywhite Canterville (Cynthia Marty) after she fell down the stairs. Sir Simon’s descendant Trevor (Zachary Ford) and his two trusted servants (Eileen T’Kaye and Steven Hack) accommodate Sir Simon as much as possible, but a conflict arises when they rent out the castle as a haunted attraction to raise money to pay property taxes. The situation seems like an ideal one (Sir Simon lives for inflicting fear), but Trevor worries that if his ancestor is too effective he will scare away all the rich paying guests. Meanwhile, Virginia, apparently impervious to Sir Simon’s scare tactics, sets about decoding an old riddle that be solved before the 100th anniversary of Sir Simon’s death, in order to prevent him from being bound to the castle for eternity.

The plot threads of the story are a bit twisted. The concept of a genuine haunted castle that would rather fake its haunting than rely on a real ghost is funny, but it gets shunted aside while focusing on solving the riddle of Sir Simon’s curse. Mixed in with this are a love story between the Virginia and Trevor, plus a subplot on Sir Simon reconciling with Lucinda (who also haunts the castle, neither ghost able to see the other). In order to justify its title, iGhost includes  references to modern technology, but they barely impact the plot (the castle has no high-speed hook-up for Virginia’s laptop, but Sir Simon can focus Internet energy to accommodate her). By the time the play gets around to solving the riddle, the details of the solution are lost in the romantic melodrama.

Fortunately, the romance (conveyed through the music) and the humor (conveyed through some clever dialogue) kept the audience so enraptured that the tangled plotting was not a major issue. This is the second ghostly musical we have seen at NoHo Arts Center; although the songs were not all up to the level of those in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir back in 2005, the tunes provided plenty of opportunity for the cast to stretch their vocal chords, and the performances were solid across the board – in some cases, absolutely stunning.

Particularly amazing was Bailey as the irritable ghost. This is actor’s second ghostly role at NoHo: he filled in for James Barbour at the final performance of Ghost and Mrs Muir – doing such a good job that you did not mind seeing an understudy instead of the star. He brought the same skills to his performance as the Cantervlle Ghost. When holding a note at the end of a song, he provided the kind of show-stopping moments that filled the gaps in the bare stage production, transporting the audience from being pleasantly entertained by a small production to being as enthralled as one could have been by any full-blown stage musical performance.

Judging from the narrated scenic descriptions (including lightening, fog, and levitations), iGhost is intended as a big Broadway-style musical. The visual potential in the play is strong, with its creepy castle setting, and one would love to see Sir Simon and Virginia flying around the stage. Hopefully, someday soon, this engaging, delightful musical will break free from the confines of the small theatre and get its shot at the big-time.

UPDATE: iGhost returned, in a full production, in 2011, playing at the Lyric Theatre in Los Angeles.