Beetlejuice the Broadway musical differs in crucial ways from Tim Burton’s 1988 comic horror movie, as the character Beetlejuice himself (portrayed by Alex Brightman) makes clear from his first appearance on stage.
The musical begins with the funeral for Lydia’s mother, with the teenage Lydia (Sophia Anne Caruso) singing movingly of her loss.
Suddenly, there’s Beetlejuice perched on the coffin
“Holy crap! A ballad already?” he exclaims, shattering the melancholy mood. “And such a bold departure from the original source material.”
If you remember the movie (and I didn’t; I watched it again this week on Amazon), Beetlejuice doesn’t appear until about the half-way mark, and his high octane obnoxiousness and show biz wisecracking are delivered in memorable but limited doses. The musical’s Beetlejuice, hyper and foul-mouthed, takes center stage nearly from the get-go, and without letup. Most to the point, the demon sets the turbo-charged pace and loud tone for the entire proceedings. I’d say this was a fatal mistake, but in a musical comedy about death and the netherworld, that might sound like a good thing.
Still, if you can tolerate the bombardment, and don’t mind sappy scenes mixed in with the comically macabre plot, Beetlejuice the musical does have its pleasures – principally a few standout performances and especially the vivid visuals.
The story in outline is more or less the same as in the movie. Young couple Adam Maitland (Rob McClure) and his wife Barbara (Kerry Butler) die by falling through a hole in their living room. Lydia’s father Charles (Adam Dannheisser) moves in with his family. Adam and Barbara, now ghosts (though unchanged), don’t want them in their house, and Beetlejuice tries to scare them away, but it backfires. Lydia, wearing black and in mourning for her mother, makes a connection with the deceased couple. Beetlejuice would like to make a connection with Lydia…by marrying her.
Alex Brightman, who scored big as the original star of School of Rock, makes the most of the meta theatrical wisecracking in “Beetlejuice”; does what he can with Beetlejuice’s crude jokes; and wears out his welcome (through no fault of his own) with the character’s extended hyper-adrenalized antics. But the musical’s “departure from the original source material” helps create showcases for a couple of the other cast members. Leslie Kritzer portrays Delia, whom Charles hired to be Lydia’s life coach, and is secretly having an affair with Charles. Kritzer makes comic hay from quoting her conman guru Otho (Kevin Moon Loh), e.g.: “Sadness is like kale salad. No one likes it. Throw it out.”
Sophia Anne Caruso, 17, who has wowed New York theatergoers for years with her startling talent and uncomfortable precocity in such shows as The Netherand Lazarus, has a show-stopping number early in Beetlejuice, “Dead Mom.” Despite the cheeky tone of that song, the musical allows her to mourn, which makes her character less of a cartoon. But then Lydia tries to enter the Netherworld to retrieve her loved one – a plot served to much better effect by another new Broadway musical, Hadestown, especially musically.
Indeed, few of the songs by Eddie Perfect are anything more than serviceable in Beetlejuice, though the lyrics can be clever and funny. They can also be puerile and profane.
The book, too, by (former New York Magazine drama critic) Scott Brown and Anthony King, feels at odds with itself. At the end of “Beetlejuice,” there is a sentimental family reconciliation and also a crass, loud game show parody – reflecting the two contrasting, and conflicting, tones of the show. I suppose mentioning these could be considered spoiler, if they weren’t both so overdone and predictable.
Yet, one aspect of “Beetlejuice” does stand out — its design. This makes sense. The movie won its sole Academy Award for best makeup. Five of the seven Drama Desk Award nominations that Beetlejuice the musical received this afternoon were for its design, as were three of the four Outer Critics Circle Award nominations.(Both also nominated Leslie Kritzer.)
Set designer David Korins (Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen) gives a Tim Burton vibe to the show, not just from Beetlejuice but from other movies Burton directed, including The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands, as he offers three different versions of the Victorian house — first one being restored by the Maitlands, preservationists at heart; then the tasteless redo by Charles and Lydia, and finally the ghoulish abode inhabited by, well, ghouls, once Beetlejuice takes over. Puppet designer Mark Curry (Frozen, Young Frankenstein) brings some of the monsters from the movie to life, most effectively the giant sandworm, and creates some of his own. Jeremy Chernick and Michael Weber create the special effects, like burning hands and levitation. Costume designer William Ivey Long and projection designer Peter Nigrini do their usual spot-on spectacular jobs. As a result, when Beetlejuice suddenly replicates into a chorus line of clones, you don’t cringe, you revel in all those stripes.
Winter Garden Theater
Directed by Alex Timbers, Score by Eddie Perfect, book by Scott Brown & Anthony King, music supervision, orchestrations and incidental music by Kris Kukul, choreography by Connor Gallagher.
Scenic design by David Korins, costume design by William Ivey Long, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, sound design by Peter Hylenski, projection design by Peter Nigrini, puppet design by Michael Curry, special effects design by Jeremy Chernick, illusions by Michael Weber, hair & wig design by Charles G. LaPointe, make-up design by Joe Dulude.
Cast: Alex Brightman, Sophia Anne Caruso, Kerry Butler, Rob McClure, Adam Dannheisser, and Leslie Kritzer, with Jill Abramovitz, Kelvin Moon Loh, Danny Rutigliano, and Dana Steingold, Tessa Alves, Gilbert L. Bailey II, Will Blum, Johnny Brantley III, Ryan Breslin, Natalie Charle Ellis, Brooke Engen, Abe Goldfarb, Eric Anthony Johnson, Elliott Mattox, Mateo Melendez, Sean Montgomery, Ramone Owens, Presley Ryan and Kim Sava.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $69 – $300