All Beetlejuice had to do was be funny. No small task. Unlike other ambitious productions, it didn’t have to deal with wannabe thespian cross dressing issues, or killer cowboys serving chili, it didn’t even have to learn Yiddish. As the last show of the Broadway season all it really had to do, first and foremost, was hurtle over the comedy high bar, just like the blockbuster film on which it was based, and stick the landing. Thankfully, Beetlejuice delivers the laughs by the worm filled bucket loads in a glorious madcap macabre musical romp that leaves the audience dying in the aisles.
The Broadway purist was having a rough time this year, what with so many venial and mortal sins being committed in the name of 'creativity' and the quest for the almighty show business dollar. They certainly didn’t need yet another film to musical adaptation. Beetlejuice probably has them in a deathly pallor as well, because it’s really unlike anything currently and quite possibly ever running on the boards. It’s a Burtonesque Sweeney Todd creation on acid with a dash of Belafonte to boot that at first glance shouldn’t work but boy does it ever.
Book writers Scott Brown and Anthony King have harnessed all the realms of Beetlejuice’s psyche to create a more well-rounded world for the character to carouse in. The plot differs loosely from the film in that it expands the Beetlejuice role into narrator and tour guide and places more focus on the relationship between Beetlejuice and Lydia bringing it closer to the also wildly popular animated series. Director Alex Timbers more than successfully manages to keep things moving at an appropriately mad and manic pace without losing any of the shows eternal soul even though the shifting focus from the original source material has dropped some characters a bit to the back of the conga line.
What also holds all the madness together is the terrific thespian trifecta of Alex Brightman’s Beetlejuice, Sophia Anne Caruso’s Lydia Deetz, and Leslie Kritzer as both Delia Deetz and Miss Argentina. Brightman takes Beetlejuice and makes him a creation all his own. Rather than try and imitate Michael Keaton’s iconic film persona he mixes more of the giddy ghoul’s many sides giving us more to see and more fun to have. Caruso pulls out a star making turn, both vocally and emotionally as a great deal of the story line rest on her shoulders when Beetlejuice isn’t out and about and she delivers easily. And in what is sure to be a Tony nominated turn Kritzer comedically commands the stage. There are also two noteworthy near scene stealers in the mix as well. Kelvin Moon Loh as Otho and Dana Steingold as the Girl Scout delivering cookies and that’s all you need to know about them lest the fun gets spoiled.
The eclectic score covers everything from calypso, folk, heavy metal, and grunge music. With tunes like “Dead Mom” and “The Whole Being Dead Thing” composer and lyricist Eddie Perfect has created much stronger material than his work on King Kong. The Australian singer-songwriter who made his Broadway debut this season also wisely kept Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jump in the Line” which would’ve certainly been criminal if they had been removed. While the music is a bit of a mixed body bag of parts, in the hands of the talented ensemble the material is sold with gusto and enough tongue in cheek that the audience can’t help but follow along gleefully.
The overall design work is outrageously executed by a team that obviously had a blast letting loose on this deeply dark canvas and they do deliver the paranormal sizzle. Lighting designer Kenneth Posner begins the work outside with green and purple lighting wrapping the marquee and continuing through the lobby and into the house leading everyone cohesively to his fine work onstage. Scenic designer David Korins follows with multiple versions of the transforming Deetz house as it devolves its own personality further and further towards the underworld. Special effects designer Jeremy Chernick, puppet designer Michael Curry, along with illusions designed by Michael Weber and the excellent screen projections of Peter Nigrini complete a wonderfully immersive world. Costume designer William Ivey Long also teams exceptionally well with Charles G. LaPointe’s hair and wig designs to accentuate the kooky characters that inhabit the realm they’ve all created.
Beetlejuice is magic, mayhem, and madness all rolled into a goth nightmare fun house. It is in no way traditional Broadway fare. It’s a production entirely entrenched in its own singularly spooky mindset. The one caveat here is to be careful bringing the little ones because Beetlejuice himself tends to spout adult rated blather. Other than that, the point here is to pay the price of admission, remain somewhat safely seated, keep your hands, feet, and tentacles inside the vehicle at all times, and just enjoy the ride.
Edward Medina is an active member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), where he serves on both the Membership and Diversity & Inclusion Committees. He is also a Drama Desk member. Edward welcomes comments at EdwardMedinaAuthor@gmail.com.
Winter Garden Theatre
New York, NY 10019