‘Beetlejuice’: Theater Review

Writers Scott Brown and Anthony King, along with composer Eddie Perfect and director Alex Timbers, approach the 1988 Tim Burton cult comedy with the giddy excitement of rabid fanboys in their imaginative musical adaptation of Beetlejuice. That enthusiasm translates to the audience, too, with every visual reference lifted directly from the movie yielding huge laughs. The show is a loving homage to a wonderfully weird original, reconceived for the stage with eye-popping design, full-throttle performances and a mischievous sense of fun that literally seems to drip from the Winter Garden Theatre’s chandeliers, tinged a ghoulish green for the occasion.

While the poppy score is uneven and the second act becomes overly convoluted, tripping up on its own plot contortions, the spectacular production values and rapid-fire jokes deliver plenty of rambunctious entertainment. Some will no doubt find the show’s voracious appetite for eccentric excess tiresome, but others will eagerly get on board with its demented extravagance.

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Either way, though, it’s impossible to deny the virtuosic showmanship of lead actor Alex Brightman. He honors the Michael Keaton template while reincarnating the expanded title role as a ribald impresario with a wit that won’t quit, a perverse P.T. Barnum of the afterlife who has no trouble holding an entire 1,500-seat house in the palm of his character’s cold dead hand. Brightman last ruled this venue in a breakout performance as Dewey Finn in School of Rock, and his Beetlejuice is a natural antic progression from that arrested adolescent. Only this time, he’s neither playing with kids nor on good behavior.

Rather than delaying the entrance of Beetlejuice until the plot foundations are in place, as screenwriters Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren did in the Burton film, Brown and King (who collaborated with director Timbers on the quirky off-Broadway hit Gutenberg! The Musical! back in 2006) waste no time ushering him on. He pops up from behind a gravestone in the opening funeral scene, in which 15-year-old Lydia Deetz (Sophia Anne Caruso) mourns her beloved mother. Her prologue song, “Invisible,” indicates her emotional isolation and her wardrobe choices signal a preference for not-so-basic black.

“Holy crap!” says Beetlejuice, instantly shattering any illusion of a fourth wall. “A ballad already? And such a bold departure from the original source material.”

That meta-theatrical wink segues into the legitimate opening number, “The Whole ‘Being Dead’ Thing,” setting the tone for a show in which the audience is both threatened by the deviant demon (“If I hear your cellphone ringing, I’ll kill you myself”) and invited to be complicit in his every bit of mischief. That starts when he gleefully cranks up our anticipation of the impending demise of wholesome couple Adam and Barbara Maitland (Rob McClure and Kerry Butler), who die in an accident in their Victorian farmhouse.

That house, already seen on a hill in the distance from the Edward Gorey-esque cemetery, gives designer David Korins ample scope to draw from the elaborate visual realm of Burton while putting his own theatrical spin on the sets. Clever manipulation of perspective gives everything an off-kilter look that seems to grow more skewed as the action gets crazier. Together with William Ivey Long’s outlandish costumes, Kenneth Posner’s lurid spookhouse lighting and Peter Nigrini’s stunning projections — scene transitions are marked by flocks of bats, ravens, thunderstorms, billowing leaves — there’s a lot going on.

While Lydia’s dead mother was relegated to the distant past in the movie, her loss remains raw here. That intensifies the brooding teen’s hostility toward her windbag father Charles (Adam Dannheisser) and Delia, the spacey “life coach” he hired to help his daughter readjust. Except she’s now on her way to becoming Charles’ second wife and Lydia’s stepmother. Delia, who constantly spouts ridiculous self-help jargon yet is profoundly shallow, is played by the marvelous Leslie Kritzer in an inspired comic turn that recalls Carol Burnett at her most irresistibly over the top.

Charles buys the Maitlands’ home to turn into the flagship for a gated-community development, swiftly trading its antique charms for outré décor crimes. Lydia, being “strange and unusual,” is the only one of them able to see and communicate with the timid resident ghosts of Adam and Barbara, who are too new to the haunting thing to scare off the interlopers. But Lydia is as anxious to get her dad back to New York as the Maitlands are to be rid of them, so they pool resources. Beetlejuice also makes contact with Lydia, but she’s smart enough to reject his self-serving offer of help, just as the Maitlands did.

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The musical’s creative team knows when not to tamper with the original, and the dinner party scene — during which Adam and Barbara, in cahoots with Lydia, attempt to terrify both hosts and guests by possessing them with the vocal stylings and dance moves of Harry Belafonte — is largely intact. This prompts great whoops of delight from the audience from the moment Delia’s toast is interrupted as she involuntarily bellows, “Day-O!” But they don’t frighten easily, so as a last resort Lydia summons Beetlejuice by saying his name three times, and the evening turns truly gruesome.

Along with the hilarity of watching everyone scramble in fear, the designers also go into overdrive on Beetlejuice’s instant makeover of the house. The walls suddenly acquire the garish carnival stripes of a circus tent, and then transform again to match the ghoul’s signature black-and-white wardrobe aesthetic. It closes Act I on a riotous note.

Act II is where it all gets a bit wobbly. Brown and King depart from the movie by establishing a camaraderie between Lydia and Beetlejuice as she starts enjoying his mayhem in the newly vacated home. It’s amusing to watch them terrorizing a girl scout with a heart condition (Dana Steingold) and other passers-by, backed by a dancing chorus of Beetlejuice clones in “That Beautiful Sound” — which is basically an old-school, razzle-dazzle Broadway production number with severed arms, Medusa heads and messier dancing. But it also feels like overblown filler in a busy plot that doesn’t need it.

The nagging sense of bloat persists as Beetlejuice steps up his plan to rejoin the living by marrying Lydia, while the Maitlands and the returning Charles and Delia try to thwart him. There’s also some tonal disconnect between the macabre wackiness of a giant sandworm and assorted manifestations of Beetlejuice’s devious mind (the impressive puppetry is by Michael Curry) and the poignancy of Lydia’s journey into the Netherworld in search of her “Dead Mom.”

That labyrinthine transit hub to “the other side” is presided over with crabby authority by the ancient Juno (Jill Abramowitz), cigarette smoke pouring out of the gash in her throat. (We miss you, Sylvia Sidney!) It’s a visual kick with its fluorescent maze of concentric rectangles, which evokes both Burton and the schlock 1950s sci-fi that so often inspired him back when he was a good director. But a lot of what happens here feels like an unnecessary detour. It seems churlish to complain about anything that gets the divine kook Kritzer back onstage, but a generic Latin number she performs as a dead Miss Argentina while Delia’s on a break is entirely superfluous.

The writers struggle to control the reins of their galloping narrative, so when Lydia belts out her big 11 o’clock number, “Home,” the emotional impact gets somewhat lost in all the confusion. That’s a shame because it’s songs like that one that show Australian composer Perfect working comfortably within a catchy pop idiom. And the enchanting Caruso (last seen in the David Bowie musical Lazarus) nails them with powerful vocal chops; she balances toughness with vulnerability, cynical humor with hurt in a lovely performance that gives the relentlessly larkish show a smidgen of heart. She also gets to wear inarguably the most fabulous of Long’s wardrobe creations, a blood-red goth wedding gown.

One element of the movie that doesn’t survive the translation, sadly, is Adam and Barbara. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis brought their distinctive charm and effortless humor to the roles onscreen; there was even a touching aspect to their suspension between the living and the dead. But the overqualified McClure and Butler can’t manage to make the vanilla Maitlands interesting, and the writers give them no help, even denying them their visit to the Netherworld. Beetlejuice aptly describes them as “a little on the Pottery Barn and dry white wine side,” though Adam stirs up the frisky flirt in him. Even their big number, “Barbara 2.0,” in which they say goodbye to their bland former selves, is forgettable. It’s just one more instance of the overstuffed show’s second-act drift.

By the time we get to the frenetic final scenes, in which Beetlejuice hosts a “Life or Death” gameshow, with a studio audience of skeletons and Delia’s fraudulent spiritual guru Otho (Kelvin Moon Loh) pinned to the wheel of misfortune, you will either be silently screaming for it to be over or audibly shrieking for more. It’s that kind of show.

I have to admit that while it comes close to derailment, I had an enjoyable time. The musical delivers a unique fan experience for lovers of the movie, and plenty of touches that Burton cultists will appreciate, from the Danny Elfman influences in the preshow and transitional music to the appearance of Abramowitz as a real estate developer’s wife whose grotesque-glam look seems modeled on Lisa Marie’s alien bombshell in Mars Attacks.

Then there’s the indefatigable Brightman. It takes superhuman stamina to maintain the live-wire energy he brings to every scene, but beneath the green fright wig, his face reveals an impish pleasure in Beetlejuice’s every dirty word and misdeed. From lowbrow gags through cheeky allusions to musicals from Hello, Dolly! to Hamilton, he sells it all with gusto. He’s a sick, twisted dead creep who’s easy to love.

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Venue: Winter Garden Theatre, New York
Cast: Alex Brightman, Sophia Anne Caruso, Rob McClure, Kerry Butler, Adam Dannheisser, Leslie Kritzer, Jill Abramowitz, Kelvin Moon Loh, Danny Rutigliano, Tessa Alves, Gilbert L. Bailey II, Johnny Brantley III, Ryan Breslin, Abe Goldfarb, Elliott Mattox, Mateo Melendez, Ramone Owens, Presley Ryan, Kim Sava

Music and lyrics: Eddie Perfect
Book: Scott Brown, Anthony King, based on the Geffen Company Picture, with a story by Michael McDowell, Larry Wilson
Director: Alex Timbers
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designers: Peter Hylenski
Projection designer: Peter Nigrini
Puppet designer: Michael Curry
Special effects designer: Jeremy Chernick
Magic & illusion designer: Michael Weber
Music director, supervisor, orchestrations & incidental music: Kris Kukul
Musical arrangements: Eddie Perfect, Kris Kukul
Dance arrangements: David Dabbon
Music producer: Matt Stine
Choreographer: Connor Gallagher
Executive producers: Mark Kaufman, Kevin McCormick
Presented by Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Langley Park Productions, Jeffrey Richards, Jam Theatricals, IMG Original Content, Rebecca Gold, Ben Lowy, James L. Nederlander, Warner/Chappell Music, Zendog Productions, in association with DeRoy Federman Productions/42nd.Club, Lattitude Link, Mary Lu Roffe, Terry Schnuck, Marc Bell & Jeff Hollander, Jane Bergere, Joanna Carson, Darren DeVerna & Jere Harris, Mark S. Golub & David S. Golub, The John Gore Organization, Ruth & Steve Hendel, LHC Theatrical Fund, Scott H. Mauro, Networks Presentations, No Guarantees, Gabrielle Palitz, Pierce Friedman Productions, Iris Smith, TripTyk Studios