Before rehearsals began for “Ghost: The Musical,” the on-stage retelling of the 1990 hit starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, the show’s cast members had one bit of extra homework: watching the movie.

For the most part, they liked the story, which follows young couple Sam, played by Patrick Swayze, and Molly, played by Demi Moore, who are torn apart by Sam’s murder and brought back together when he returns as a ghost.

Whether the cast had never seen “Ghost” before or were watching it for the dozenth time, whether they loved the soundtrack or mocked the retro digital effects, they agreed on something.

They wouldn’t try to copy the movie.

“First of all, I’m not Demi Moore,” said Samantha A. Matthews, who plays Molly in the musical, which premieres this weekend at Circa ‘21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island.

“You don’t want to copy a brilliant performance; you want to bring yourself into it and make it your own.”

And that’s what you’ll see in Circa’s rendition of “Ghost,” billed as the Midwest premiere of the show, which runs through March 11.

Getting "Ghost" on stage

It’s been a long road to the stage for “Ghost.”

When the musical version premiered on Broadway in 2012, it didn’t go over well.

“It wasn’t hugely successful,” Jerry Jay Cranford, who is directing the show at Circa ‘21, said. “The sweet little show was kind of overdone and you lost the simple romance. When it’s a multi-million dollar production, you get a little bit of spectacle.”

In April 2016, the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, premiered the reworked version of “Ghost: The Musical” with revisions made by Marc Robin, the theater’s artistic director, Bruce Joel Rubin, who wrote the original movie screenplay, and musical writers Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard.

The cast decreased from 18 to 10 and the show lost the over-the-top digital projections and high-tech elements.

Circa ‘21 Dinner Playhouse, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary season, is the second theater to perform that version.

“It’s much more stripped down, which makes it practical for a regional theater with a smaller budget to do,” Cranford said. “You look at the Broadway version and you think there’s a beautiful love story underneath all of that. And that’s what we’re trying to tell.”

Getting creative

For Andrew Keeler, there’s a few challenges that come with playing the lead role of Sam.

“The movie is so iconic, and Patrick Swayze is iconic,” Keeler said. “My difference is I’m a goofball. I try to make the character a little more upbeat because that's just me." 

Another tricky issue is that for a portion of the show, after he comes back as a ghost, his character can’t touch anything such as people, props or door handles.

“In the movie, you see him pass through walls and stuff,” he said. “We don’t have the budget to pass through anything, so you have to be creative.”

There are challenges for Matthews, too, like remembering when she can and can’t see Keeler’s character on stage.

“When he’s saying, ‘Hey, look at me or something,’ I have to remember not to react and make people believe that,” she said.

Matthews and Keeler also have to make people believe in their love.

“We only get 15 pages before I die to make the audience fall in love with us as a couple,” Keeler said. “We have to make that intense love happen quickly.”

Heart of the story

If you saw the movie, you’ll recognize some parts of “Ghost” like the pottery-wheel scene, the pop song “Unchained Melody” and the comic relief from Oda Mae Brown, the character played by Whoopi Goldberg.

But Matthews promises that you’re in for some surprises.

“The movie is so classic and people know it so well,” she said. “What we want to do is tell the beautiful story in our own way.”

Matthews said she got into that mindset by seeing her character as “just a person dealing with a horrible thing.”

“For me, I try to think about how would I feel if this happened to me. Would I care about how my hair looked? Would I make jokes?” she said. “Everybody has lost somebody they love or will lose somebody and people want to know that moving on and losing somebody is OK. I think there’s a hope in this story." 

At its core, “Ghost” could just be a very sad story, so Cranford said he made certain choices to lighten the mood. He also made sure to keep it simple.

“The heart of this is a love story that gets cut short,” Cranford said. “And I think it’s cathartic to us as an audience to think that it could get resolved in some way.”

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Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).