at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff
Screen to stage is a much tougher transition than stage to screen. In the case of this classic weepie, the technical challenges are considerable, and the score, though serviceable, is never going to match the spectre of Unchained Melody, attractively referenced and recycled in the show.
LODS have done wonders with the staging. What look like king-size bedsheets, with phone-pictures of Sam and Molly growing up, fly out to reveal the apartment, with its “statement” fridge. There's much use of back-projection – busy monochrome New York, with smudged shades of passers-by, a wonderful Brooklyn streetscape. The supernatural is slickly done, too – walking through the door, shape-shifting, out-of-body deaths. Particularly impressive are the ghost in the subway sequence, and the Blithe Spirit moment with the poltergeist in Carl's office.
Musically, they do what they can with some pretty anodyne pop numbers – backing chorus and dancers to match. Most successful are the proper trios, dramatically significant, like the Act One finale, Molly's moving With You, and the rappy Focus from the Subway Ghost. Are You A Believer is a nice Gospel number from Oda Mae and her acolytes, but simply serves to slow the action.
Director Peter Brown has a fine cast to work with. Stuart Woolner and Jenny Peoples make believable lovers, with superb stage presence and a confident approach to the score. Outstanding character work from Lawrence Harp as the angry, paranoid Subway Ghost, and from Helen Sharpe as the “storefront psychic”, whose quirky character does much to cut through the sentimentality, a memorable “closing the account” routine a comedy highlight. Lewis Sheldrake is the treacherous Carl, Neil Lands the nasty Lopez.
The ensemble – commuters, tourists in Oda Mae's fantasy – are kept busy with stylised choreography by Gemma Cohen. But the show would work just as well as a chamber piece, without the production number padding. Though the umbrellas at the end of the first act and the rain at the start of the second make for good continuity. The closing scene, with Sam, invisible at first, finally re-united with Molly, and sharing one last dance, thanks to the medium, is touchingly done. I liked Carl being dragged down to hell like Don Giovanni, and the curtain call, with the lovers left alone together at the end.
Excellent work from the orchestra – Paul Day the Musical Director – soulful strings underscoring the emotional moments, bright guitars and reeds elsewhere.
In the West End, the projections were accused of upstaging the passion. The balance in the Palace seems about right, though a better score [and lyrics] would help make a more worthy musical of this iconic celluloid fantasy.