REVIEW: “Beetlejuice” is a ghoulishly good time
As popular films continue to provide the most fertile source material for new musicals—often disappointing, rarely superlative—“Beetlejuice”, the last new musical of the 2018-2019 Broadway season, offers a finely tuned and highly enjoyable example of just how to do it right.
Director Alex Timbers, bookwriters Scott Brown and Anthony King, Australian songwriter Eddie Perfect, and a top notch cast of first rate comedians have come together to craft a musical once in danger of being an overwrought retread of a beloved film (out-of-town reviews were devastating—and deservingly so) into a ghoulishly good time that pays loving homage to the mythology of “Beetlejuice” the movie while fundamentally reorienting the story and lending it an unexpected punch of pathos amid its crass and crude mania.
Instead of trying to recreate the rare magic of Tim Burton’s iconic 1988 film in which a married couple die in a car accident and haunt the Victorian country home they had been meticulously restoring with the aid of a mischievous “bio-exorcist” demon named “Betelgeuse” (memorably created by Michael Keaton), the stage musical takes a cue from the popular “Beetlejuice” animated series (1989-1991), inventing an alliance between a more chipper Beetlejuice (a perfectly cast Alex Brightman) and a younger Lydia (17 year old Sophia Anne Caruso)—the goth daughter of the Deetzes who move into the Maitland home—as the axis of the story.
That axis homes in on a similarity that both Beetlejuice and Lydia share: their invisibility (in his case, literally), outsider status, and desire for someone to say their names.
This turns out to be a smart move, because it allows the story to grow and go beyond the strictures of the film in which Beetlejuice only receives 17.5 minutes of screen time (less than 20%), and Lydia has little back story. On stage, Beetlejuice is a fourth-wall breaking narrator who appears within the first minutes, while Lydia’s dramatic arc becomes the central plotline of the piece, instead of the deceased Maitlands’ quest to rid their home of the living.
Audience members at the Winter Garden Theatre are greeted by a dark and eerie auditorium lit with purples and greens, and the musical opens on the funeral for Lydia’s mother. Delia (Leslie Kritzer*), famously created on screen by Catherine O’Hara, is no longer Lydia’s stepmom, but rather a new age “life coach” who is schtupping her widower father, Charles (Adam Dannheisser), whose buttoned-up grief creates a rift between him and the outwardly depressed Lydia.
As Beetlejuice ironically remarks within the musical’s first minutes: “such a bold departure from the original source material.”
Thank heavens for that. “Beetlejuice” the musical is just that: the musical. Like Tina Landau did with “SpongeBob SquarePants” last season, Mr. Timbers understands his assignment, and has created a show based on a well-known property that knows it exactly what it is and wants to do. With this new vision and story, setting taste aside, “Beetlejuice” excels.
Refashioned as a tween mourning her “dead mom”, Lydia’s suicidal angst is given a clearer purpose that builds to an emotionally satisfying and unexpectedly poignant climax in act two. It turns out that “a show about death” has more to say about grief among the still-living than the film version ever did. As our cheerfully craven guide to the other side, Mr. Brightman’s raunchy Beetlejuice is a pansexual demon vaudevillian who infuses the show with a buoyant energy and keeps the lowbrow, profanity-laced comedy flowing. His character work is masterful, from the gravelly voice, to the limber dance moves and deadpan line delivery.
Despite the elevated focus on Lydia and Beetlejuice, though, the decidedly square Maitlands—Barbara (Kerry Butler) and Adam (Rob McClure)—provide a necessary boost of earnest ballast as steady anchors for the story, which takes place almost entirely in and around their home (with a detour to the netherworld).
Home, in both its literal and figurative sense, is the heart of this musical. The Maitlands were roosting for a child upon their death, Lydia feels displaced from the home where she and her mother created memories, Charles and Delia are seeking to build a new future, and the centuries-old Beetlejuice has no home or friends.
Set designer David Korins spent six years developing the design of the Maitland home, which undergoes four major transformations central to key plot developments, and becomes a character unto itself. A veritable funhouse, the set captures the spirit of the macabrely handcrafted world created by Tim Burton for the film while proving a miraculously malleable platform for the musical to unfold. A lot of time—and money—was spent to get this design right, and the investment pays dividends.
In fact, the entire creative team explicitly pay tribute to Mr. Burton in their designs, and that collective expression of a Burtonesque sensibility—led by Mr. Timbers—gives the whole production a unified visual framework that is extraordinarily effective. I’d venture to suggest that there isn’t a better designed show on Broadway right now—the one thing that most critics (and the Tony Award nominators!) seem to agree on.
Any single tableau is unmistakably “Beetlejuice”. William Ivey Long’s costumes, Michael Curry’s puppets, Peter Nigrini’s projections, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting all combine and complement with Mr. Korins’ set to establish a consistent tone and atmosphere for the entire enterprise. It is clear from their detailed and meticulous work that this creative team loves the Burton aesthetic, and sought to playfully pay homage to both the film of “Beetlejuice” and Mr. Burton’s extended catalogue.
While the film is heavily associated with composer Danny Elfman’s unforgettable score, songwriter Eddie Perfect—also represented on Broadway this season with “King Kong” (read my review)—draws on a variety of musical sources from 80s rock to current pop, gospel, and, of course, calypso, with his score for the stage.
While mostly sunny and highly hyperactive to match the manic energy of its titular character, there are surprisingly sentimental songs, like the haunting anthem “Invisible” and the climactic “Home”, that give Lydia’s arc vital texture and emphasize the story’s new center of gravity and message about grief.
While I would have preferred, as a matter of personal taste, a more Elfmanesque score that is a creature of musical theatre tradition (think Kurt Weil), a mix of pop styles seems to be the current trend on Broadway (see: nearly every new musical), and the craft at hand here is more than serviceable and even engrossing at times.
Listening to the recently released cast album sheds further light on musical references and lyrical jokes that might be lost in the theatre—and the fullness of Kris Kukul’s rich orchestrations.
Just like “Spamalot” and “Mean Girls”—two rare examples of cult comedy films turned into successful musicals—the flattest moments of “Beetlejuice” are the obligatory ones: the scenes, lines, and jokes that must be faithfully recreated lest the die-hard fans turn into die-hard haters. A joke isn’t funny when you know the punchline—neither is a sight-gag once the sight is known.
“Beetlejuice” must include the famous “Day-O” scene in which party guests are terrorized by their dinner as they are possessed to dance around the table to Harry Belafonte’s rendition of the “Banana Boat Song”. Rather than belabor the joke, though, the creative team nods to the scene from the film, then expands upon the action, moving on to new material and ideas—like a giant roast pig coming to life—that is naturally funnier because it is fresher.
Miss Argentina (also played by Leslie Kritzer), the underworld’s receptionist, makes an appearance in act two. Instead of just repeating well-worn lines from the film, her story is expanded into a show stopping song, “What I Know Now”, that was added between D.C. and Broadway and gives Ms. Kritzer—painted green for a single scene—another opportunity to dazzle the audience with her considerable comedic chops and powerhouse vocals.
Indeed, comedy is the medium here. Nearly every line of Mr. Brightman’s incites roars of laughter, and Ms. Kritzer’s daffier characterization of Delia—another “bold departure from the original source material”—lovingly calls to mind the influences of comedians like Carol Burnett, Parker Posey, and Jennifer Coolidge, while maintaining its own Kritzerian edge. Jill Abramovitz also stands out as both Maxine Dean and Juno, disgruntled civil servant of the netherworld given more character background here (no spoilers!).
Aside from story structure and song interpolation, Mr. Brown and Mr. King’s book drips with a bawdy working class humor clearly designed to appeal to the bridge and tunnel crowd. I don’t say that with condescension; I was born and raised on Long Island, and was laughing and smiling along with the rest of my audience (which noticeably skewed more male than is typical for a Broadway musical). Their book also roasts contemporary mores (wokeness, whiteness) with the wink and nod that Robert Horn’s book for “Tootsie” (read my review) thinks it possesses (but woefully does not).
In sum, the last new musical of the season proves to be its zaniest—finely tuned, though, and not without purpose. Far from being an unimaginative cash grab like “Pretty Woman” (read my review) or a theme park ride, as others have derisively suggested, “Beetlejuice”, it turns out, is just a well-crafted lowbrow musical comedy that falls neatly into the tradition of Broadway.
While the crude humor and pop score might not meet the elevated aesthetic standards of some, this critic (and devoted “Beetlejuice” fan) had a blast.
Bottom Line: “Beetlejuice”, the last new musical of the 2018-2019 Broadway season, is a ghoulishly good time that pays loving homage to the mythology of the movie while fundamentally reorienting the story and lending it an unexpected punch of pathos amid its crass and crude mania. Gorgeously designed with a Tim Burton aesthetic, and featuring a relentless series of bawdy jokes and entertaining songs, this hyperactive musical comedy might not meet the elevated aesthetic standards of some, but I had a blast.
*the author has a personal friendship with Ms. Kritzer, a co-host of “The Fabulous Invalid” podcast
Winter Garden Theatre
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: April 25, 2019