As someone who loves George Gershwin’s music, could listen to it 24/7 and never tire of it, I’d looked forward to reviewing “The Ghost of Gershwin” at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood.
But I quickly tired of “The Ghost of Gershwin” and began looking forward to blackout and going home.
Credit the Group Rep Theatre, which operates the Chapman and produced this play, for truth in advertising when it bills the play as “A New Old-Fashioned Musical.” Yes, it’s new (world premiere) and, yes again, it’s an old-fashioned musical.
And that’s the problem: it strives to be both things simultaneously and winds up doing neither very well.
“Ghost” is set in an old Brooklyn apartment house where Gershwin is said to have once lived. Now, in 2014, a young, impoverished composer named Grant (Andrew Bourgeois) lives there with his keyboard, mixer, computer and other assorted recording equipment, banging out songs for friends and prospective producers — some of which, truth be told, do have a pleasing, 1930s, Tin Pan Alley-ish sound.
Among those friends are Dennis (Gregory Guy Gorden), Grant’s partner/agent trying to sell Grant’s music wherever and to whomever; Coronelia (Suzy London), the apartment house manager and nudge trying to collect Grant’s back-rent; Nessa (Emma-Jayne Appleyard), a statuesque dancer, Grant’s former fiancée and now Dennis’ unhappy wife; Wilfred (Kyle Bares), a choreographer trying to propel Nessa’s career; Mel (Jean Altadel), a handy-woman renovating Grant’s apartment and, she hopes, his love-life; and lastly — and sadly least — Gershwin’s ghost (Daniel Lench), dispensing more lovelorn advice to Grant than guidance about rhythms and chord progressions. Coronelia even finds an old piano stashed away in the building’s basement that would seem to have been Gershwin’s when he lived there.
All those players, all those contrived backstories — it felt as if a confectioner’s bomb had exploded, filling the house, top to bottom, front to back, with cotton candy.
Doug Haverty, the writer, is given a whole lot of cast but doesn’t give them a whole lot to do but run onstage and off, occasionally breaking into song or lunging into thunderous tap dances. His book is a mashup of skits and bits from years past: Mickey Rooney films of the 1930s (“Hey kids,-let’s-put-on-a-show!”); ingénues trying to attract the leading man’s attention (Debbie Reynolds in “Singin’ In The Rain,” plus — plus! — that film’s yellow raincoat dance sequence); a terribly earnest, ambitious young man (remember J. Pierrepont Finch from “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”?) and on and on.
Woody Allen resurrected the ghost of Humphrey Bogart to good effect in the 1972 movie “Play It Again, Sam.” Director Jules Aaron might have done better if he had had Gershwin’s ghost emulate Bogie’s sardonic persona, but instead he has Lench portraying the composer’s shroud as more of a kindly Mister Rogers who just happens to live in the neighborhood.
Of course, “The Ghost of Gershwin” is a spoof and not meant to burden anyone with deep, deep thoughts. Still, considering the joyful bounce that was the hallmark of so much of George Gershwin’s original music, this play is more a ghostlight than a spotlight.