‘Ghost: The Musical’ at the Drama Learning Center and TYA

For two hours or so, Ghost: The Musical may have you believing in life after death. But the show’s premiere regional staging at the Drama Learning Center in Columbia enjoyably proves the case for its life after Broadway.

And speaking of immortality — how about a big hand for film composer Alex North, whose 1955 tune for “Unchained Melody” again plays a dramatic role here, and still manages to move an audience to tears.

Sam (Josh Altenberg) sings "Unchained Melody" to Molly (Claire Cerand). Photo by Al Tucci.
Sam  (Josh Altenberg) sings “Unchained Melody” to Molly (Claire Cerand). Photo by Al Tucci.

Bruce Joel Rubin, screenwriter of the top-grossing 1990 movie Ghost, adapted the story for the stage in 2011, with new music and lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard. Ghost: The Musical earned solid reviews in London and ran over a year, although a Broadway version only managed 136 performances before giving up the ghost in 2012. A national tour stopped through Baltimore last April.

The Drama Learning Center is the first local theater to seek  stage rights to the piece for its TYA (Teaching Young Actors) production wing. And you can believe this: It won’t be the last.

Even in the sometimes-timid hands of TYA’s teen actors, the storytelling comes on strong, thanks to a central situation we care about and a small but vivid cast of players.

First, there are the two young lovers, Sam and Molly, whose excitement with each other and the promise of their  future is so enduring that even a sudden act of violence can’t end the relationship. Sam’s spirit lingers on, and then finds a greater purpose in trying to solve his own murder before the killer returns for Molly.

Then there is Carl, Sam’s ambitious friend and business associate, whose ocean of devotion to Sam only extends to the shores of his own agenda.

And finally, there is Oda Mae Brown, the testy African-American psychic who is shaken to find her talent for defrauding the living has actually masked a rarer gift for channeling the dead. This is the role that won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar, and it will likely go on stealing the show in every production hence.

Certainly that happens at DLC, where the fully mature singing and comedy talents of guest artist Felicia Akunwafor provide the audience almost continual delight and amazement. Whether leading a gospel-like ensemble in “Are You a Believer?” or slapping down hecklers outside of Molly’s apartment, Felicia is a force for pure enjoyment.

It takes our Sam and Molly (Josh Altenberg and Claire Cerand) a bit longer to warm up the audience. For some reason, they move through the opening number (“Here Right Now”) as if in a trance. Their singing sounds solid from what we can hear, but they do not project out, and some of their lyrics are delivered with their backs to the audience as they travel upstage.

Both of these exerienced performers more fully inhabit their roles later on. Josh does a wonderful job with a ukulele  solo singing “Unchained Melody” to Molly, for example,  and is terrific at gaining our sympathy with his sense of loss and confusion.

Claire’s Molly is also a most appealing creation, and with her big emotional Act I solo, “With You,”  she manages to erase all early misgivings over her hesitation.

Felicia Akrunwafor as the flamboyant psychic Oda Mae Brown channels the wandering spirit of Sam (Josh Altenberg). Photo by Al Tucci.
Felicia Akrunwafor as the flamboyant psychic Oda Mae Brown channels the wandering spirit of Sam (Josh Altenberg). Photo by Al Tucci.

It’s always a pleasure watching Seth Fallon perform, and his role as the driven, two-faced Carl never appears too much of a  stretch, even for this fresh-faced actor. Alex Rothfield is also a show-stealer in the role of the dangerously volatile Subway Ghost, who seems fully on top of the show’s trickiest illusions.

Those special ghostly effects are well integrated by “illusionist” Brian M. Kehoe. The multi-platformed stage set and scene-setting background projections are professionally tailored to the Red Branch stage by veteran Maryland designer Terry Cobb.

Costumes are well envisioned by Amy R. Weimer, especially the gaudy outfits that are the hallmark of Oda Mae and her Psychettes. The choreography by Adeline Sutter and the fight routines staged by Erin McDonald both contribute to the colorful non-stop movement of the show.

On Saturday, the live musical accompaniment by Tiffany Underwood Holmes and a three-piece ensemble sounded a bit less focused than in past shows, but was always dependably on cue and well timed.

All in all, Director Stephanie Lynn Williams has done another superb job deploying her youthful cast to keep the proceedings lively.

Running Time: About two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

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Ghost: The Musical plays on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 19, 20 and 21st at The Drama Learning Center-9130 Red Branch Rd # I, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles under the Hollywood sign, John Harding is an award-winning arts writer and editor. From 1982 on, he covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and served as arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group until 2012. A past chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, he co-hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program. Also known for his novels as John W. Harding, his newest book is “The Designated Virgin: A Novel of the Movies,” published by Pulp Hero Press. It and an earlier novel, “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games,'” grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore.


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