Stage Review: The Ghost & Mrs. Muir – Opening Night

The Ghost and Mrs Muir at NoHo Arts Center (2005)The debut performance of THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR, a new stage musical written by James J. Mellon, with songs by Scott DeTurk and Bill Francoeur, drew a standing ovation from the cozy 100-plus seat NoHo Arts Center Theatre on Thursday, May 26. Not only was the play itself quite charming – alternately amusing, romantic, and sad — but also the performance was remarkably polished, with interesting staging, excellent acting, and impressive singing. One would have expected a certain amount of opening night jitters; instead, there were few apparent glitches and little obvious room for improvement.

Before the performance, the theatre’s artistic director gave a brief introduction, explaining that this was the musical’s first performance before an audience anywhere; in fact, he warned, this was the cast’s first “run-through without stopping,” and he offered to listen to any advice the audience might have to give afterwards. It’s probably fair to say that there was little advice given, as the performance turned out to be a triumph.

Although the play claims to be based on the book by R. A. Dick, audiences familiar only with the classic film starring Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney will find the story hauntingly familiar: A widow and her two children move into a cottage by the sea, which turns out to be haunted by the captain who built it. After some initial ghostly manifestations (echoing laughter, strobe lights), the Captain materializes in person, and the tone shifts from haunted house atmospherics to romantic fantasy, with the title characters gradually growing to love each other even while their different planes of existence (she on Earth, he in the afterlife) prevent any kind of consummation — in fact, even so much as a caress — until the final fade out.

It’s a timeless story that almost cannot help generating audience empathy, but it does run the risk of being maudlin. Fortunately, it’s told in a brisk fashion with lots of humor, not to mention nearly two-dozen songs. In general, all of the musical numbers (performed by a modest six-person orchestra) come off well, although Act Two’s “Blood and Swash” sounds a bit too much like the Act One showstopper “She’s a Damn Fine Wench.” (Perhaps this was intentional, as both are bawdy expressions of Captain Gregg’s lusty appetites.) The other tuneful highlight is “It’s All in Your Imagination,” wherein Mrs. Muir tries to convince her children that there is no ghost in the house; if this score were ever to be recorded, this song would be an excellent choice for the hit single.

If one were to question the inclusion of any of the numbers it would be the Act Two opener “Herbert Henry Asquith,” which seems shoe-horned into the narrative for its own sake: it represents the debut of Mrs. Muir’s daughter as a singer on-stage, performing a slightly risqué number about the hidden desires of seemingly respectable politicians. Perhaps it is supposed to illustrate the contrast between the ways the two Muir children turn out, with Anna embodying the passion mostly hidden in her mother, while brother Cyril turns out to be a repressive martinet.

In any case, the song provided one of the few visual flubs of the evening. The play’s flashback structure requires Anna to undergo a costume change on-stage; though handled quickly and discretely, the actress emerged in her almost backless chanteuse outfit with her very modern-looking bra clearly visible whenever she turned away from the audience.

Unlike the film, the musical moves back and forth in time to tell its story, which covers the years from 1900 to 1935. This helps prevent the disappearance of Captain Gregg from the final portion of the narrative: the scenes from the end of Mrs. Muir’s life, after the captain has ceased haunting Gull Cottage, are spaced throughout the play. It also provides an opportunity for Lynne Wintersteller, in the role of the widowed Lucy Muir, to show that she can effortlessly shift her character’s age on stage without the benefit of make-up or costume changes, and without overdoing the palsied shake that could too easily have become unintentionally humorous.

James Barbour and Lynne WinterstellerIn the other half of the title role, James Barbour at first looks a bit too young to portray a man who has supposedly led a full life that has taken him to the four corners of the earth; his dark good looks are almost a cliché of the handsome heart-throb. But once his voice is heard it dispels any qualms; like Wintersteller, he makes the character his own, helping viewers put aside any memories of Harrison and Tierney (or Edward Mulhare and Hope Lange, who played the roles in the 1960s television series).

If there is a weakness in the narrative, it pertains to the aforementioned song “She’s a Damn Fine Wench,” wherein Gregg invisibly inspires Miles Blaine, a potential suit of Mrs. Muir’s, to put aside his reservations and pursue the object of his affection. Since Gregg has expressed nothing but suspicion about Miles, one expects that the ghostly captain has some kind of hidden agenda; even the title of the song implies that Gregg is giving a crude kind of advice designed to backfire and make the widow spurn Miles’ advances. But in the very next scene, Mrs. Muir seems hopelessly in love with Miles. (The romance comes to an abrupt end, due to a surprise revelation, but Captain Gregg seems completely surprised by this as well, leaving us to wonder just what he was up to.)

One might also quibble with the use of the song “I Will Always Be There” to end Act One, wherein Captain Gregg sings that, even after he departs, he will always be with Mrs. Muir, in the feel of the wind on her face and the sound of the sea in her ears. As fans of the film recall, Gregg does disappear from Mrs Muir’s life at the end of the tale, but placing the song here makes it sound as if he is leaving halfway through the play. In any event, he is back again near the beginning of the next act, requiring that he reprise “I Will Always Be There” when he actually does depart, somewhat later. The emotional impact of separating the two title characters is somewhat diminished, however, through the repetition.

The reason for his departure is also somewhat muted: basically, he has gotten what he wants from Mrs Muir, guarantee that she will use the royalties from a book (which they have literally “ghost-written” together) in order to purchase Gull Cottage and make it a home for retired sea captains. This is not a very dramatic turning point. (In the film, Gregg leaves when Muir falls in love, because he realizes she has chosen life with a living man rather than an impossible romance with a denizen from the hereafter.)

As for the few apparent glitches on opening night, they occurred mostly near the very beginning, when the actor playing Cyril seemed to stumble over a line and then had to force a smile from his face while making his very serious speech. A moment later, someone seemed to miss a cue, and another actor was visibly nodding his chin as it to say, “Time to make your exit!” Later, in Act Two, one of two sails the descended from the rafters (turning the stage into Gregg’s ship while he relates his sea-going adventures in “Blood and Swash”) slipped from its moorings and fell to the stage floor.

That was about it, as far as obvious errors go. Presumably, some of the staging could be honed and refined to make it even smoother, shortening the slight pauses while waiting for lighting effects to kick in or songs to start. But overall, the staging made excellent use of the modest space, extending the action into the aisles, using the entrance and exit doors, and having the chorus sing from the balconies (creating a wonderful effect of hearing the music surround you as if from all sides).

Although realized on a small scale, THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR was clearly conceived as the sort of crowd-pleasing blockbuster that can pull in a Broadway audience. If this opening night performance is any indication, that could very well happen.

Just one more trivial complaint: my favorite line from the film does not appear in the play. On stage, Gregg defends his sea-faring morals from the upright widow by refusing to apologize for having led a man’s life and by insisting that women were always sorry to see him go. The film’s dialogue is a bit more eloquent on this point: “As for my morals, I’ve lived a man’s life and I’m not ashamed of it. But no woman was ever the worse for having known me, and how many men can say that?”

Location: NoHo Arts Center 11136 Magnolia Blvd, North Hollywood
Starring: James Barbour, Lynne Wintersteller, etc

 

More in this series: 

  1. Stage Review: The Ghost & Mrs. Muir - Opening Night
  2. Stage Review: Ghost & Mrs Muir "Final" Performance