In the never-ending saga of movies turned into musical, we end this season by adding to the list “Beelejuice,” the beloved Tim Burton film from 1988. Fans of the film and its titular, black-and-white stripe-wearing ghoul will probably love this adaptation; even though Scott Brown and Anthony King, who wrote the book, have made significant changes in plot, the production as a whole perfectly captures the essence, comedy, and aesthetic of the original.
This is primarily achieved through design. The set, a crooked house that transforms in stages from classic Victorian to hellish haunted house, is designed by David Korins and provides a perfect canvas for the green and purple lights by Kenneth Posner and the creepy projections by Peter Nigrini. The costumes take the signature looks and give them a modern twist; they are designed by William Ivey Long, who despite being accused of sexual assault has still managed to get work on Broadway. Throw in a massive puppet or two by Michael Curry and some scary special effects by Jeremy Chernick and you’ve got a perfect translation of the “Beetlejuice” film to the stage.
Like the film it tells the story of a couple, Barbara and Adam Maitland (Kerry Butler and Rob McClure, who are underutilized) who have recently died and haunt the new occupants of their house: widower Charles (Adam Dannheisser), his goth teenage daughter Lydia (Sophia Anne Caruso), and his life coach / girlfriend Delia (Leslie Kritzer in a performance that is so comedic it’s bound to become iconic). Leading the show, of course, is the demon Beetlejuice, played by Alex Brightman with bizarre but incredibly enjoyable panache.
In particular, Butler and Kritzer steal the show; Butler as the most innocent Connecticut wife-turned confused ghost and Kritzer as a crystal-clutching, guru-quoting ball of hilarity. Brightman does an impeccable job carrying the musical along and has found an interpretation of the role that honors the original but is still wholly his own. However, the young newcomer Caruso is almost intolerable; she frequently comes off as a goth orphan Annie, who sounds more like she is competing on a singing show or performing on a personal YouTube channel than starring in a Broadway musical.
But the largest issues of the musical are its music / lyrics (by Eddie Perfect) and the plotting of the book, which does not make much sense or adhere to its own logic. For all of Act II, for example, it is unclear what Beetlejuice’s (and therefore the entire musical’s) motivation is. It is also unclear what exactly the rules are about how many times humans and ghosts can be brought back to life and then killed again. If you overthink the plot you’ll end up quite confused, so maybe just focus on the visuals.
The other problem with the book is the translation of Beetlejuice’s crude humor to 2019 and to a Broadway stage, which has been done inconsistently and with mixed results. He is still uncomfortably sexual, but he now non-consensually kisses both Barbara and Greg (which is supposed to make it ok?). The musical also goes out of its way to point out some of the more non-politically correct jokes, notably the song “Creepy Old Guy,” an amazingly self-aware anthem in response to Beetlejuice wanting to marry Lydia. It is worth noting here, however, that the musical is definitively raunchy, and if we gave out movie rating for the stage it would probably be rated R for strong language and sexual content.
In addition to an illogical second act, Perfect’s music and lyrics hardly live up to his name (when talking about a show with such canonically corny jokes I couldn’t help myself). Every single song sounds exactly the same, and even looks the same, ending with a loud down beat and a triple spot light cue on the soloist. Yawn. The lyrics are often hilarious, but the issue is that they are all overstuffed; often there are so many words in a line that the performers struggle to get them all out, and then the audience can’t understand or appreciate the perpetual onslaught of long-winded jokes.
In a show that is all about the laughs, this is a major issue. Overall, the bland score and imperfect (now that I’ve started I can’t stop) lyrics do not justify making “Beetlejuice” into a musical. The acting is mostly good, the design is great, but the music — the part that makes it a musical — is the biggest issue. It does have some enjoyable meta moments, including musical theater references, asides that break the fourth wall, and the opening song that instructs “this is a show about death.” Director Alex Timbers has certainly made the show have a very clear tone and style, but even he cannot make sense of the book or make the music and lyrics work to their potential.
It is by no means a very strong musical, but “Beetlejuice” is undeniably a fun, spooky time, and fans of the original film will absolutely love it. I’ll put it this way: the musical gives you everything you’d expect (“Day-O,” a giant sand worm, a striped suit, and ghostly antics galore) but nothing more, and honestly there is nothing wrong with knowing your brand and just sticking to it. Plus, who goes to “Beetlejuice” to see a well-constructed piece of high art anyway?