Not only did Death not take a holiday April 23, it took a double-decker bus to Broadway, applying its lethal touch to a sentimental pop-rock romance — Ghost at the Lunt Fontanne Theatre — as well as to a savage domestic comedy — The Lyons at the Cort Theatre. It's a great leveler, all right.
When the curtain rises on the latter, Rita Lyons (Linda Lavin) is not actually doing a gleeful rain-dance around the hospital death-bed of her husband, Ben (Dick Latessa). In fact, she's the picture of composure, legs crossed, leafing lazily through a copy of House Beautiful, lost in the gloss of renovations that befit a merry widow, dog-earring pages for future reference. Maybe those who are attuned to dog-whistles can pick up on her unbridled merriment.
Occasionally, she will return to Planet Earth and ask Ben for his opinion of Early American and then go back into her redecorating trance. "I'm dying!" the cranky nearly-departed reminds her. "I know," she responds archly, having made her peace with that growing possibility, "but you don't have to be so negative about it."
The beautiful thing about the belated Broadway arrival of playwright Nicky Silver is that his savage sense of comedy is still intact, not remotely mellow or forgiving, and he has the perfect spokesperson in Lavin, who doesn't always have to speak to get his point across. Sometimes, the lifting of an eyebrow or a pinkie will do the trick. Her comic timing is so subtle, so advanced, that she leaves the distinct impression she is playing to you and only to you. (She's not. Look around.) Linda Lavin must be the best Swiss watch that Broadway has had since Nancy Walker.
And give Latessa points as well for snarling back with mortal vulgarities and nastiness, stupidly unaware that Silver/Lavin have produced The Super Pit Bull.
The young Lyons are about what you might expect from such a miserable marriage that has gone so many extra innings. Lisa Lyons (Kate Jennings Grant) is a backsliding alky looking for love in all the wrong places — AA meetings; Curtis Lyons (Michael Esper) is a numbingly alone timid soul who invents his lovers. "Considerately," Rita spared them the news of their dad's dying until the 11th hour.
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Ghost The Musical, another tale of a modern-day Manhattan marriage torn asunder, is from "Ghost" the movie, circa 1990. Here, it is a young couple with everything to live for, brought to an abrupt halt by what seems to be a senseless mugging-gone-amok but isn't. The mortally wounded husband lingers around for one last embrace, which is achieved through the machinations of a spiritualist.
"Ghost" the movie made stars of Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze and Tony Goldwyn, and no doubt Caissie Levy, Richard Fleeshman and Bryce Pinkham, who've inherited those roles for the musical, harbor hopes of lightning striking twice. The movie also made Oscar winners of Whoopi Goldberg as the medium in spite of herself and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, who has stuck around to write the book for the musical version.
Glen Ballard, who wrote Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," and Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics, provided the score — but the big hit of the show hails from the second of Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch's three films, 1955's "Unchained."
The 1956 Oscar-nominated "Unchained Melody" — it lost, or was drowned out, by "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" — was written by lyricist Hy Zaret (1907-2007) and composer Alex North (1910-1991). The song is heard several times in the musical (we never hear the famous Righteous Brothers recording from the stage).
It's North's big year on Broadway. Mike Nichols is re-spinning his stage score for the current Death of a Salesman. Were Emily Mann only so wise to reuse North's stage score for A Streetcar Named Desire for her revival.
Fleeshman and Levy, the original leads in London, were brought over to repeat the tasks here. He found it decidedly "bizarre" to be, at 22, suddenly a Broadway actor, "but I love everything about this show. Every night it's a helluvah challenge. I'm so lucky to get the opportunity to do it — both in London and, now, here."
He was especially happy to meet Lisa Niemi, Swayze's widow who came up for the event from Texas. "She's lovely," he said, "and she really seems to enjoy the show. It's all we could ask for, and it means the world to us that she was here."
Niemi was indeed dazzled by the nonstop, wall-to-wall projections of Manhattan that overwhelmed the show, but she had to laugh at how the musical couldn't even begin to approximate the pottery-wheel erotica that the movie memorably had. On stage, Fleeshman and Levy seemed to be just getting their hands dirty in gray gook.
This is the fourth Broadway show for Levy, who turned 21 on April 15, having run from Hairspray to Hair with a little Wicked in the middle. "We're so thrilled to be on Broadway only a year after we started in London. The London opening was very swanky as well, but now the show has grown even more so we're celebrating even larger this time around.
"My favorite song is probably 'Nothing Stops Another Day' in the second act, but I also love singing 'With You,' which is a song that people really respond to. I can hear the crying in the audience sometimes. It's just one of those songs that hits people on a core level, and I'm honored that I get to sing it every night."
Pinkham, who Broadway-bowed as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson's best friend, is feigning that part here as Flesshman's business associate. He remarked, "My favorite question — and the first one I ask myself — is: 'What do I like about this guy?' I think I like his drive. I can understand what it feels like to be within reach of somebody who has just a little more than you. You just want to catch up to him. His best friend has the job, has the girl, has the car — and that's the guy I want to defend. On some level, I can understand him, and it's a challenge I enjoy taking on."
More menace is projected into the musical by Michael Balderrama. "What's great about this character is that it gets me a chance to play someone who's really removed from my personality. It's my first time, ever, playing a villain. It allows that dark side of you that you can tap into and really have an avenue to let it out. I've enjoyed finding the dark places and the things you don't usually get to bring on stage."
The play's director, Matthew Warchus, took the entire American cast to London to see the show the week before rehearsals started. Balderrama said, "He made it very clear: He wanted us to find our version of these characters and not try to shoehorn into something that was predetermined. It was really smart idea."
Decked out in a nicely tailored suit and tennis shoes, Warchus maintained his British cool throughout a dizzying run of interviews. "I have a very fortunate career in that I can honestly say I've never directed anything that I didn't feel very passionate about and love. It's absolutely true of Ghost. The same kind of rigor has gone into putting Ghost on as Matilda or any of my work. I'm very proud of it."
The stateside version of Matilda, which set the record for Olivier Award wins (7) on April 15, is indeed on the way. "We're going to go into rehearsals, I think, in January and open March-April next year," he said. What theatre it will land at is about two or three weeks away from confirming, and it hasn't been decided if any or all of the British cast will be making the trek to Broadway. (Kids grow taller, it turns out.)
Writer Rubin is, frankly, not surprised that the "Ghost" he created has such mass appeal: "The fact is that every human being has this universal desire to have one last moment with someone they love. That is so strong and it is so well dramatized in this movie and in the play that people flock to it over and over because it affirms this possibility of endless life, of endless connection, of having a love that goes on forever. 'The love inside you — you take it with you' — it's the very last line in the play now."
Da'Vine Joy Randolph, who whoops it up in Whoopi's role and virtually steals the show, made her Star Entrance very late — too late for some reporters to stick around when they had other fish to fry. The after-party for Ghost was held in a spooky, desolate, taxi-free, eminently muggable part of town — 12th Avenue and 28th Street — at Tunnel.
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