Haunting Tales, Flying High

Occasionally I like to discuss where plays and musicals come from. We have two interesting examples locally this month: a touring production of Ghost the Musical at the Aronoff and the Cincinnati Playhouse’s regional premiere of Fly, a hist

click to enlarge Ghost the Musical
Ghost the Musical

Occasionally I like to discuss where plays and musicals come from. We have two interesting examples locally this month: a touring production of Ghost the Musical at the Aronoff and the Cincinnati Playhouse’s regional premiere of Fly, a historical drama presented with imaginative staging.

Ghost derives from the 1990 romantic film that starred Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg, the year’s highest grossing picture, earning $505 million. The story of a murdered man who comes back as a ghost to protect his girlfriend with the help of a phony psychic was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture. Its screenplay won, as did Goldberg’s performance as the sassy medium. The film memorably used the Righteous Brothers’ 1965 recording “Unchained Melody” to accompany an iconic love scene involving a potter’s wheel.

A romantic tale with an impressive earnings record is the kind of property sought by artistic teams to recast as a musical. Dave Stewart (of The Eurythmics) and Glen Ballard created a stage show that played well in Great Britain in 2011 then moved to Broadway in 2012, where it ran for five months (136 performances) to lukewarm reviews and a few Tony nominations. (In The New York Times, Charles Isherwood opined that it “may not be the worst musical ever made from a movie … but it is just as flavorless and lacking in dramatic vitality as many that have come before.”) 

Nevertheless, Ghost had enough cachet from its cinematic roots to fuel a touring production, making a stop at the Aronoff Center for a two-week run. The tour employs many of the high-tech bells and whistles from the Broadway production (Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design was nominated for a Tony), and those are expected to dazzle and please audiences.

High-tech flourishes are also used to great effect in the Playhouse’s staging of Fly, a script by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan about World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen, African-Americans who trained as combat pilots. Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt and sound designer John Gromada, both with many Broadway and off-Broadway credits, take audiences aloft using video projections of clouds and flight via five panels that look like the nose gun turret windows on a B-17 bomber. 

Fly was initially commissioned by New York City’s Lincoln Center Institute as a 60-minute student show. In 2009 Ellis and Khan (the latter has directed the Playhouse production) expanded it to a 90-minute version. Fly was not conceived as a vehicle for commercial success, a powerful motive for Ghost’s creators. Although both shows tug at emotional heartstrings, Fly’s impact is fueled by historic truth, the moving stories of four men who overcame prejudice to serve America in a truly valiant manner. 

Underage eager beaver Chet (David Pegram) from Harlem, stylish ladies’ man W.W. (Eddie R. Brown III) from Chicago, hardcore “race man” Oscar (Will Cobbs) from Iowa and proudly arrogant J. Allen (Terrell Donnell Sledge) from the West Indies represent the spectrum of men recruited for the training program — some from college, some from the world of work — all eager to prove what they could accomplish. In the play each must overcome tremendous disbelief, bigotry and hatred by demonstrating intelligence and discipline. As they trained, the slightest slip meant a washout; even those who succeeded were treated with suspicion, ignorance and hatred. If they had revealed their true emotions, their ambitions would have been thwarted. 

Fly’s most inventive special effect is purely human: The airmen’s anxiety, elation, fury and joy are reflected by the “Tap Griot.” (A “griot” is an African storyteller or historian.) Played by dancer Omar Edwards, the Griot appears as various minor characters but looms large when the airmen cannot express themselves, channeling feelings through fluid motion and furious feet to conjure pride, fear, grief and anger. The airmen also move expressively (with choreography by Hope Clarke) — sharpening their marching as they improve as pilots and sometimes engaging in Edwards’ tap routines. They also physically recreate flight, sometimes soaring with arms outstretched, sometimes reflecting the physical strain of aerial battle from a cramped cockpit, recreated from a chair. It’s easy to appreciate the action and skill required to contest in a war when the distance between man and machine was narrow, not too distant from hand-to-hand combat. Fly might never achieve commercial theatrical success, but it’s a show that will be remembered long after lightweight works like Ghost have melted away. Fly is airborne at the Playhouse through Oct. 5; Ghost, which opens Sept. 24, disappears Oct. 6.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]

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