There was a slight air of Rocky Horror Picture Show on Broadway last week, only the show was Beetlejuice, a new musical based on the Tim Burton cult classic. Patrons, some with orange hair, some wearing all black, many more eager to buy Netherworld sweatshirts, came out to the Winter Garden Theatre to see one of their favorite movies brought to life on the stage. Sure enough, when Delia, played here by the exuberant Leslie Kritzer instead of Catherine O’Hara, interrupted a certain dinner party by way of possessed intervention to sing Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” hoots and hollers came from a crowd that begged to sing along.
Beetlejuice, with music and lyrics from Eddie Perfect (King Kong: The Musical) and a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, was crafted from a group of creative minds who clearly love the source material, though not all of it works. There are still second act problems and a song list void of any real bops, but it’s a fun time for the Burton novice and pure fan service for the Burton stans, thanks in large part to the titular puckish undead spirit breathing life into a Broadway experiment that could’ve been dead in the water.
The character of Beetlejuice, made his own and played to near perfection by Alex Brightman (School of Rock: The Musical), is the ultimate fan… of himself. The musical brings a Deadpool-ian approach to what feels essentially like a mash-up between the original 1988 movie and the animated series that followed; the undead con man largely narrates his own story as the newly deceased Maitlands hit familiar movie story beats, while, in a later scene, Beetlejuice explodes onto the stage atop a giant puppeteered sandworm like a cackling zombie rodeo clown. Homages to Burton’s aesthetic are sewn into the very fabrics of the costumes — designer William Ivey Long usually leaves at least one actor in any given scene sporting warped patterns or some purple accent. They’re also built into the sets themselves. Though digital projections fill the backdrop with gothic horror imagery, scenic designer David Korins doesn’t rely on them. Instead, he leans into the practical and plays with proportions, altering the perception as the sets move up and down stage, blurring what’s real with what’s part of their Nether regions.
There’s much that a stage adaptation of Beetlejuice just can’t do by nature — let’s see Barbara (Kerry Butler) and Adam (Rob McClure) Maitland try to pop their eyes down through their throat to peek out on their unhinged jaws — which is why the production, from director Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), reworks the original story to focus more heavily on the young Lydia Deetz (Sophia Anne Caruso).
After the death of her mother, Lydia adopts an angsty goth look and muses about the futility of life as a means of covering up her grief. Her father moves her and Delia, reimagined here as a life coach who you know reads Goop religiously and listens for signs from the universe in her gemstones, out of the city and into the rustic old Maitland house, just as the newly deceased former owners are realizing they’re dead. The fact that Mr. Deetz (Adam Dannheisser) is also secretly dating and about to propose to Delia is an added point of tension for this modern family still adjusting to their new life. And Beetlejuice wreaks havoc as a mischievous decaying pansexual sprite, bouncing about and manipulating the characters in the house in order to return himself to the land of the living, planting fat wet kisses on Barbara and noting how sexy Adam is any chance he gets. All the while, he’s breaking the fourth wall to snort cocaine and crack jokes to the audience about how his cast mates are interrupting his soliloquy.
If a bunch of kids grew up watching Burton’s classic in the ’80s and then, as adults, were tasked with re-contextualizing the story for a modern theater audience, you would probably imagine some fun plays on the film, like a trip to the Netherwold, maybe a cameo from the shrunken head dude from the waiting room, and classic lines like, “I myself am strange and unusual.” Maybe you’d find creative ways to incorporate classic elements into the story, and maybe now you’d realize how creepy it was to watch Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice try to marry a 17-year-old (a young Winona Ryder played Lydia in the original film) and write a song acknowledging how weird that was. Maybe this new Beetlejuice on Broadway will constantly have to remind the audience it’s just a “green card marriage.” All of that is in the show, hence the feeling of fan service and confronting the certain ghosts of Beetlejuice past.
The script is smart to sprinkle homages and Easter eggs evenly throughout the production. (One nit-picky caveat: there’s no waiting room scene. Can’t win ’em all.) But these surprises can’t hide certain setbacks that come in Act Two — Lydia’s journey culminates in what we hope to be a meaningful moment with her father, but it feels slapped together with a hurried plot and empty dialogue, as if rushing to get back to all the fun we were having.
Similarly, the songs aren’t memorable enough to be heard humming from the lips of guests as they exit the theater, except for perhaps one of the opening numbers reminding us “This Is a Show About Death.” From the guy given the unenviable task of making the King Kong musical a thing, that was probably his biggest Broadway musical moment. Most of the lyrics and melodies aren’t accessible enough or, more simply, impactful. They do make sense within the context of the story, though they are carried largely by the immense talents of the cast. That goes double for Brightman’s Beetlejuice, Caruso (who may be just 17 but possesses an impressive range and controlled belt), and McClure as a lovable dorky Adam. The real surprise standout, however, is Kritzer’s Delia. A supporting role, yes, but one she blends with all kinds of comedy, whipping out a different gag from her proverbial fanny pack depending on the situation. Need some ham? She’ll ham it up. More physicality? She’s literally doubling over with laughter as we speak. Need another character? The part-Puerto-Rican actress transforms into Lydia’s shepherd to the Netherworld as Ms. Argentina, with a showstopper song and dance to go with it.
The movie-to-stage adaptation is a tricky genre to navigate. It ultimately comes down to, What more is there to say? What can you do with this story that you couldn’t do in a movie? Beetlejuice, both the play and the character, has flaws, but this crazy trip proves there’s a lot more to say and a lot more fun to be had. B+
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