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Theater: Ghost, Leap Of Faith and Lyons Struggle on Broadway

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GHOST THE MUSICAL * 1/2 out of ****
LEAP OF FAITH ** out of ****
THE LYONS ** 1/2 out of ****

Three new shows on Broadway that have one thing in common: none of them are wholly satisfying, but they are all genuine attempts at serious theater. So hearing that Leap Of Faith will close on Sunday is too bad, even if it's not too surprising. Creating theater is some of the hardest work in the arts. When it succeeds, there's nothing better. When it doesn't quite click, they still go out again night after night and that must be awfully hard. None of these shows can even enjoy the delicious black humor of a notorious flop; they're just musicals and plays that didn't quite come together.

GHOST THE MUSICAL * 1/2
LUNT-FONTANNE THEATRE

One of the least promising ideas for turning a movie into a musical proves just as awkward and ill-suited as you might imagine. Based on the Oscar-winning (!) 1990 film starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg, it's an ungainly, tiresomely faithful adaptation. The movie itself was an inexplicable success and here we are reminded again of its uninteresting plot involving our hero's death, his oily best friend and the fake psychic called in to rescue our heroine from danger. If you expect multiple variations of the Righteous Brothers classic "Unchained Melody," you won't be disappointed. If you expect some clever stagecraft to mimic the supernatural moments of the movie (like when Swayze leaps from a subway platform onto a moving car with spectral ease), you also won't be disappointed. If you expect good songs and compelling characters, however...

The strength of this show is its technical production. Designer Rob Howell, Video & Projection Designer Jon Driscoll, Sound by Bobby Aitken and the Illusions by Paul Kieve use often deceptively simple, old-fashioned tricks to create a sense of the spirit world. We see people in subway cars who seem be floating up from the ground at all sorts of impossible angles. We see our hero leap back and forth from visible to invisible. We see glimpses of heaven and hell.

Unfortunately, the technical production is also a weakness. This show has a huge cast. But often when the stage is filled with dancers we also get video projections of more people moving about the city and it actually detracts from the impact of all those live performers. Time and again the visual pizazz distracts us from the story at hand. It's a shame when 15 or so people are on stage dancing and singing their hearts out and your eye is drawn away from them. Plus much of the story is set in an insanely big loft that only exists in the movies and yet most of the time we spend in the foyer and living room at the front of the stage and that beautiful space is lost. (Maybe this is just a New Yorker's reaction.)

That apartment is the find of Sam (Richard Fleeshman) and Molly (Cassie Levy) two beautiful young people with a high-paying job in finance (him), a flourishing career in the arts (her) and beautiful bodies (both of them). It's kind of hard not to hate them so it's good that he's quickly killed off and she's in mortal danger. Da'Vine Joy Randolph has Goldberg's role as the fake psychic who suddenly finds herself getting real messages from the beyond. Randolph has fun in a role that could be shameless pandering and maintains her dignity. Fleeshman has the toughest part as Sam since for most of the show he is literally acting on his own because the other characters can't make eye contact with someone they can't see. It's a colorless part and -- perhaps through not fault of his own -- he makes no impression. Bryce Pinkham is the duplicitous best friend; he's better at the dramatic moustache twirling than the singing.

Of all the performers, Levy is by far the standout. She has a sterling voice and a commanding presence. Hopefully we'll get a chance to see her in a much better show very soon. But even Levy can't turn anonymous songs into show-stoppers. The tunes by pop wizards Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics of course) & Glen Ballard vanish from your memory as soon as they're over. The very talented Matthew Warchus proves an able traffic cop as director. But the source material (by Bruce Joel Rubin) simply isn't very good and no special effects can bring a moribund story to life. Still, the blood, sweat and tears they spent trying to do just that is all visible on the stage.

LEAP OF FAITH ** out of ****
ST. JAMES THEATRE

Ghost The Musical has been running in the West End for almost a year but whenever I told someone they'd turned that movie into a Broadway show, they giggled in disbelief. Leap Of Faith is a curious choice, but at least it made more sense. The 1992 movie starred Steve Martin as a con artist/faith healer and made a very modest $22 million at the box office. It's no cult favorite a la Newsies but you can understand the appeal. A traveling preacher lets you talk to the audience and toss in a gospel choir for some big rousing numbers. Plus you've got the faith angle, a town thirsty for some rain (110 In The Shade, anyone?) and a little kid who just wants to walk.

The result is a serious show with a lot of talent but very little dramatic excitement. I see two reasons for this. One, the very talented Raul Esparza was the wrong choice to play Jonas Nightingale; he has an inherent lack of trustworthiness about him that makes Esparza very compelling as a hero. But as a con man? You wouldn't trust him for a moment. Mind you, he's the best thing in the show and the one reason you should rush to see it if you're a fan of his before it closes on Sunday. Two, there is no story. Everyone except the backup singers in the choir know the score from the very first scene. Nightingale knows he's a fraud. The sexy sheriff (Jessica Phillips) knows he's a fraud. His daughter (Kendra Kassebaum) and his lead singer/accountant Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans) know he's a fraud. Maybe Jake, the little boy who can't walk doesn't know Jonas is a fraud, but what's his excuse? Everyone around him -- including Jonas himself -- keeps telling him it's a sham.

If any doubt remains about how the story will turn out, it evaporates thanks to the framing device of presenting the musical as a New York City revival meeting headed by Jonas himself. The only question is whether the water-parched town Jonas is preaching in will finally get a rain storm and if you're really wondering that, you've never seen a Broadway finale before.

The tech elements are all solid thanks to director Christopher Ashley, with the sets by Robin Wagner in particular a model of efficiency. They easily set the stage for the tent revival, behind the scenes moments and other locations like the sheriff's office and home. The songs by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) aren't bad, with songs like "Lost," "Dancin' In The Devil's Shoes" and "Are You On The Bus?" elevated mightily by the people singing them. Lewis-Evans is a strong performer, Krystal Joy Brown is a lovely presence as her daughter and Leslie Odom Jr. also a stand-out as her straight and narrow preacher son who disapproves of this chicanery. Esparza is given an 11 o'clock number to wrestle with his lack of faith and show a man struggling towards decency and a moment of grace after a lifetime of quick cons. He pours his heart into it and makes "Jonas' Soliloquy" compelling despite the lack of substance in the rest of the show that would be needed in the show to truly make it a powerful moment.

The book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight put a lot of work into restructuring the movie into a viable Broadway show and the effort shows. It wasn't enough to help that oddball, not very good movie become a good musical. But you can't say the leap wasn't worth attempting.

THE LYONS ** 1/2 out of ****
CORT THEATRE

What a season for Linda Lavin. She has major connections to three of the biggest shows around. Lavin was part of the key out of town production of Follies, starred at Lincoln Center in Other Desert Cities and now has the key role in The Lyons, the long-overdue Broadway debut of playwright Nicky Silver. No one who wants to see Lavin in top form will be disappointed by her here or anytime. I just wish the show itself were more of a triumph for Silver than what we have.

Act One is the strongest, with Lavin in acidic form sitting in a hospital room waiting for her husband Ben (the excellent Nick Latessa) to die. She's leafing through catalogs trying to get ideas for how to redecorate the living room with Ben complaining that he likes the living room just the way it is. She stares him down; does it really matter what she does with a living room he's never going to see again? Clearly Lavin's Rita is not going to waste any time getting on with her life.

Whether that life will include their children is an open question. Gay son Curtis (Michael Esper) keeps trying to make peace with his father for making so clear what a disappointment the kid was to him. Daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant) keeps pathetically wondering if her ex-husband might take her back. And as you might expect from the caustic, black-humored Silver, it's all downhill from there.

it's a curious fact that very little happens on stage in the show. The Lyons is almost all exposition as we're told what has happened or is happening off stage. It's all tell, don't show. Lisa is a serious alcoholic who begins drinking again. Oh and the ex-husband she pines for? He beat her. Curtis's gay boyfriend of the almost impossibly perfect life? Imaginary. Curtis always has been and always is alone. If Ben feels his imminent death is getting lost in the shuffle, you can't blame him.

I felt the generally marvelous Lavin was pushing some of the laughs a bit strongly at first. But by the end of the show I realized that was all she had to work with. The two scenes in Act Two were significantly downhill in interest. We watch Curtis awkwardly and embarrassingly stalk a neighbor he's been obsessively spying on, while Lisa starts sleeping with her AA minder. When Rita announces she's going to go away with a boy toy -- perhaps forever -- who can blame her?

We start with a group of characters who become increasingly less interesting (and less funny) as the show goes on. Latessa is pitch-perfect as Ben; he never plays his part for laughs. Lavin is a pro and at least she's not saddled with the hard-to-swallow revelations of Curtis (a fine Esper in a sketchy role) and Lisa (Grant, the least convincing performance of the night). A quick scene-setter with Ben talking to the audience from beyond the grave feels like the remains of a much earlier draft or the glimmer of an idea Silver dropped. It should have been cut. The sets by Allen Moyer are solid, though my guest felt any and all hospital rooms should look dingier and more depressing than the relatively clean one on display here. Mark Brokaw directed with efficiency; the problems here are all on the page.

The Theater Season 2011-2012 (on a four-star scale)

The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs ** 1/2
All-American **
All's Well That Ends Well/Shakespeare in the Park **
Assistance **
The Atmosphere Of Memory 1/2 *
Blood Knot at Signature **
Bob *** 1/2
Bonnie & Clyde feature profile of Jeremy Jordan
Broadway By The Year: 1950 ** 1/2
Broadway By The Year: 1997 ** 1/2
Carrie ** 1/2
The Cherry Orchard with Dianne Wiest **
Chinglish * 1/2
Close Up Space *
Clybourne Park *** 1/2
Crane Story **
Cymbeline at Barrow Street Theatre ***
Damn Yankees **
Death Of A Salesman with Philip Seymour Hoffman ** 1/2
Dedalus Lounge * 1/2
Early Plays (Eugene O'Neill at St. Ann's Warehouse) *
End Of The Rainbow *
Ernani at Met w Angela Meade *** 1/2
An Evening With Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin ***
Evita * 1/2
Follies *** 1/2
Fragments ***
Galileo with F. Murray Abraham **
The Gershwins' Porgy And Bess *** 1/2
Ghost The Musical * 1/2
Godspell ** 1/2
Goodbar * 1/2
Gore Vidal's The Best Man ** 1/2
Hair ***
Hand To God ***
Hero: The Musical * 1/2
How The World Began * 1/2
Hugh Jackman: Back On Broadway ***
Hurt Village ***
Irving Berlin's White Christmas ***
It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later *** 1/2
Jesus Christ Superstar * 1/2
King Lear at Public with Sam Waterston **
Krapp's Last Tape with John Hurt ***
The Lady From Dubuque ** 1/2
Lake Water **
Leap Of Faith **
Leo ***
Love's Labor's Lost at the PublicLab ** 1/2
The Lyons ** 1/2
Lysistrata Jones *
Magic/Bird *
The Maids **
Man And Boy * 1/2
The Man Who Came To Dinner **
Maple And Vine **
Master Class w Tyne Daly ** 1/2
Measure For Measure/Shakespeare in the Park ***
Milk Like Sugar ***
Mission Drift * 1/2
Misterman ** 1/2
The Mountaintop ** 1/2
Newsies at Papermill **
Newsies On Broadway ** 1/2
Nice Work If You Can Get It **
Ninth And Joanie *
No Place To Go ** 1/2
Now. Here. This. * 1/2
Olive and The Bitter Herbs ** 1/2
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever * 1/2
Once *** 1/2
Once on Broadway ****
One Arm ***
One Man, Two Guvnors on Broadway ***
Other Desert Cities on Broadway ** 1/2
Painting Churches * 1/2
Peter And The Starcatcher *** 1/2
Pigpen's The Nightmare Story *** 1/2
Private Lives **
Queen Of The Mist ** 1/2
Radio City Christmas Spectacular ** 1/2
Regrets * 1/2
Relatively Speaking * 1/2
Richard III w Kevin Spacey at BAM ***
The Road To Mecca ** 1/2
Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History Of The Robot War ** 1/2
The Select (The Sun Also Rises) ** 1/2
Seminar **
Septimus & Clarissa *** 1/2
Shlemiel The First ** 1/2
Silence! The Musical * 1/2
69 Degrees South * 1/2
Song From The Uproar **
Sons Of The Prophet *** 1/2
Sontag: Reborn *
A Streetcar Named Desire with Nicole Ari Parker **
Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark * 1/2
Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays **
Stick Fly **
A Streetcar Named Desire **
The Submission **
Super Night Shot ** 1/2
Sweet and Sad **
The Table ** 1/2
Titus Andronicus at Public with Jay O. Sanders * 1/2
Tribes *** 1/2
The Ugly One **
Unnatural Acts ***
Venus In Fur ***
We Live Here **
Wild Animals You Should Know ** 1/2
Wit ** 1/2
Zarkana **

NEW YORK MUSICAL THEATRE FESTIVAL 2011

Blanche: The Bittersweet Life Of A Wild Prairie Dame *** 1/2
Central Avenue Breakdown ** 1/2
Crazy, Just Like Me ***
Cyclops: A Rock Opera *
Ennio: The Living Paper Cartoon ** 1/2
F---ing Hipsters **
Ghostlight **
Gotta Getta Girl ** 1/2 for staged reading
Greenwood *
Jack Perry Is Alive (And Dating) * 1/2
Kiki Baby ** 1/2
Kissless * 1/2
Madame X **
The Pigeon Boys ***
Time Between Us * 1/2
Tut **

FRINGEFEST NYC 2011

Araby *
The Bardy Bunch **
Books On Tape ** 1/2
Civilian **
Hard Travelin' With Woody ***
Leonard Cohen Koans *** 1/2
The More Loving One **
The Mountain Song *** 1/2
Paper Cuts ***
Parker & Dizzy's Fabulous Journey To The End Of The Rainbow ** 1/2
Pearl's Gone Blue ***
Rachel Calof ** 1/2
Romeo & Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending **
2 Burn * 1/2
Walls and Bridges **
What The Sparrow Said ** 1/2
Yeast Nation ***

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.

Note: Michael Giltz is provided with free tickets to shows with the understanding that he will be writing a review.