For a musical jubilantly proclaiming that its overriding theme is death, “Beetlejuice” has a surprisingly lively spring in its step.
As is well known by now, popular movies never die; they are resurrected as Broadway musicals. “Beetlejuice” is the fourth to open just this season, following “Pretty Woman,” “Tootsie” and “King Kong,” and it faces a number of challenges that most others do not.
The supernatural, for starters, is more easily brought to convincing life through film’s deep arsenal of special effects. And the show’s title character has to be both seriously creepy and deviously charming. (How to make palatable — or just unrepellent — Beetlejuice’s desire to wed the teenage heroine?) Against considerable odds, the musical manages to surmount most of the hurdles it faces, even if, like that nasty-funny ghost at its center, for many it may ultimately overstay its welcome.
A somber prelude, set at the funeral of the mother of the goth-girl ingénue Lydia (Sophia Anne Caruso), signals that liberties will be taken with the source material. The ghost Beetlejuice, played by “School of Rock” star Alex Brightman (who may as well move into the Winter Garden Theatre, where that Andrew Lloyd Webber musical just played and “Beetlejuice” has opened), gleefully points this out, also quipping about the unusual choice for an opening number: “A ballad already?”
Although it diverges considerably from the GPS-challenging road map laid down by the movie, much of what follows deftly replicates the macabre comedy the movie’s director, Tim Burton, has become known for. “Beetlejuice,” just his second film after “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” set the tone for much of his subsequent career.
The musical’s book, by Scott Brown (a former theater critic, perhaps proving there is indeed life after death) and Anthony King, is clever and rich in sardonic wit, with zippy one-liners detonating like a string of firecrackers almost throughout. The musical is considerably funnier than the movie. (Like many new musicals, “Beetlejuice” is lightly larded with nifty in-jokes referencing classic ones: “Hello, Dolly!” and “Brigadoon” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”)
And while the mostly up-tempo songs, by Eddie Perfect, are often more diversionary than plot-forwarding, particularly in the scattered second act, they are likewise in keeping with the queasily humorous tone of the original. (An Australian performer and songwriter, Perfect also contributed to the clunker “King Kong,” but let’s not hold that against him.)
The basic bones of the plot are still in place. Adam and Barbara Maitland (Rob McClure and Kerry Butler) are living in a rural Connecticut fixer-upper when they meet with a fatal accident. But the meddlesome ghost Beetlejuice, who has a more prominent role in the show than in the movie, waylays them before they can head to the “Netherworld.” He hopes that the Maitlands can help him convince one of the members of the new family moving into the house to bring him back to life, through the charm of saying his name three times. The logic of all this is a little muddled, but then fantasy is not a genre that I favor: My eyes glazed over sometime during the first season of “Game of Thrones” — or was it the first episode?
That new family consists of the widower Charles (an amusingly puffed-up Adam Dannheisser) and his daughter Lydia, who is still in deep mourning for her mother, along with Charles’s new girlfriend, Delia, whom he has also hired to be a life coach for Lydia. Delia, swathed in fabulously vulgar wrap dresses, is played with daffy comic zest by the marvelous Leslie Kritzer, absconding with every scene she’s in, as if collecting discounted crystals from a New Age boutique. Among the loony mantras and skewed self-help platitudes that spring from Delia’s mouth, in her dogged attempts to get Lydia to lighten up: “Depression is like an ugly sweater. It’s okay at Christmas, but the rest of the year? You gotta put it away.”
Because Lydia is drawn to “the strange and unusual,” she, unlike the others, can see the ghosts of Adam and Barbara. After thwarting their attempt at scaring her (Beetlejuice’s request), Lydia strikes up a friendship with the Maitlands and joins with them to spook Lydia’s father and Delia out of the house. These fright-fests are redoubled when the Maitlands they see how their successors have begun redecorating it to turn their former cozy nook into a model home for a gated community: “You can’t make every wall an accent wall!” wails Barbara, in the rare moment when the divine comedian Butler gets a nice laugh line.
The warped, gothic set designs, by David Korins, spruce up the show with their own humor, as the sturdy old Connecticut manse is transformed into a shrine to the kind of bland, magazine-ready “good taste” that is really the mark of the taste-free folks who salivate over Restoration Hardware catalogs.
The director, the prolific Alex Timbers, might have profitably taken an editor’s pen to the cumbersome gyrations of the plot. The movie’s storyline was semi-inane, true, but it also clocked in at 90 minutes. The musical seems to vamp for almost the entire second act, piling on new complications to the already convoluted proceedings, and gradually threatening to exhaust the appeal of the material — whimsy has a limited shelf life.
Still, I’m not sure I would be willing to sacrifice the delirious pleasure of seeing Kritzer, doubling as a deceased Miss Argentina in the Netherworld (“I died with the sash! They can never take it away from me!”), performing a show-stoppingly silly Latin-flavored song lamenting the life she left behind, and urging the still-living Charles and Lydia to head back up where they belong. The feeble game-show sequence, on the other hand, I could easily live (and die) without.
The energetic Brightman, his hair a changing color-wheel of highlights and his eyes glinting with insidious malice, naturally has some strong numbers, although the finest may well be his introductory song, that warning to the audience that the musical ahead will be an all-singing, all-dancing memento mori (“There’s nothing medical professionals can do,” he sings, “except maybe just bill you”). And Brightman manages to nimbly tread the line between vaudevillian entertainer and malicious menace, even making his ick-worthy proposal to marry the much-younger Lydia slightly less noxious by shouting, “It’s a green card thing!”
Kritzer and Brightman aside, the performers are not given much high-fiber comic material. McClure and Butler, both extraordinary talents, play characters whose colorlessness is not really excused by Beetlejuice continually making fun of their boho bougie-ness. And while Caruso infuses Lydia with a believable combination of goodbye-cruel-world teen angst and lonely yearning, she often tends to fade into the background as the special effects move to the fore.
These infusions of stage magic, while nicely handled (by special effects designer Jeremy Chernick and magic and illusion designer Michael Weber), cannot distract us from the sense that “Beetlejuice” is straining frantically for an ending, as the battle between the now-mostly-nefarious Beetlejuice and his enemies grows increasingly drawn-out. “Life is a goddamned roller coaster,” Beetlejuice grouses. “So many feelings! One minute you’re on top of the world, the next minute you feel no one could ever love you!”
“Beetlejuice” evokes both responses: You’re having lots of fun, as the gags and the juicy performances provide peaks of musical-theater pleasure, and then suddenly you’re sliding down into your seat to peek at your iPhone to check the time.
“Beetlejuice” opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on April 25, 2019.
Creative: Book by Scott Brown and Anthony King; Music by Eddie Perfect; Lyrics by Eddie Perfect; Based on the motion picture by the Geffen Company; Directed by Alex Timbers; Choreographed 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.
Producers: Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Langley Park Productions, Jeffrey Richards, Jam Theatricals, IMG Original Content,Rebecca Gold, Ben Lowy, James L. Nederlander, Warner / Chappell Music, Inc. and ZenDog Productions; Produced in association with deRoy Federman Productions/42nd.club, Latitude Link, Mary Lu Roffe, Terry Schnuck, Marc Bell & Jeff Hollander, Jane Bergère, 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 and Triptyk Studios.
Cast: Alex Brightman, Kerry Butler, Sophia Anne Caruso, Adam Dannheisser, Leslie Kritzer, Rob McClure, Jill Abramovitz, Kelvin Moon Loh, Danny Rutigliano, Dana Steingold, Tessa Alves, Gilbert L. Bailey II, Johnny Brantley III, Ryan Breslin, Abe Goldfarb, Elliott Mattox, Mateo Melendez, Ramone Owens, Presley Ryan, Kim Sava.