Sunday, April 28, 2019

223 (2018-2019): Review: BEETLEJUICE (seen April 26, 2019)

“Mourning Becomes Frenetic”

Recently, some theatre-crazy kid from an Alabama city I never heard of, who follows me on Instagram, couldn’t resist reporting how psyched he was that a musical based on Beetlejuice, Tim Burton’s hugely popular, horror-comedy film of 1988, was coming to Broadway. Given his address, his chances of seeing it in the immediate future are slim. My own cavils aside, I'm sure he'd enjoy it if he could.
His excitement was multiplied many times over by the happy fans—some in cosplay getups—filling the Winter Garden when I attended. Their squeals, laughter, applause, and other signs of appreciation revealed how much affection the humorously creepy film, and its TV and video game spinoffs, have conjured up for this campy material, which brings to mind such cultish icons of fright farce as The Rocky Horror Show and The Adams Family. 
This latest Broadway adaptation of a popular movie (with music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect, and a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King) makes many alterations to the movie version’s plot but it incorporates enough familiar elements to keep most enthusiasts happy. Like the movie, Beetlejuice, the Musical is an outlandishly ghoulish goulash of ghostly gallivanting led by the roguishly mischievous, titular spirit-in-chief (a.k.a. Betelgeuse to the cognoscenti). 
He, of course, was played with inimitably deadpanned snark by Michael Keaton in the movie; here, he’s given a mega-pumped-up, gravely-voiced rendition by the fright-wigged Alex Brightman (School of Rock), Broadway’s newest heir-apparent to the musical farceur's throne of Nathan Lane.

Beetlejuice, briskly directed like a runaway train by Alex Timbers, speeds by on whatever death jokes it can squeeze from its relentlessly over-the-top barrage of double entendres, rude language, slapstick, scare-slanted humor, Halloween-like special effects, puppets small and huge (from a ravenous roast pig to a humongous sandworm), and assorted examples of the kookily uncanny. 
It opens at a Charles Addams-like funeral during which we’re gleefully welcomed “to a show about death.” As Beetlejuice sings “The Whole Being Dead Thing” he tells us not to be freaked because “I do this bullshit eight times a week.” The plot that follows concerns a young couple, Barbara (Kerry Butler, Mean Girls) and Adam Maitland (Rob McClure, Chaplin), who die when the floor of the big, suburban house they’ve bought collapses under them. For the rest of the show, they’re charming ghosts, like clueless versions of George and Marion Kerby in Topper. 
The new owners are the Deetzes, Charles (Adam Dannheiser) and Delia (Leslie Kritzer), his whacky second wife. He’s a real estate developer planning to redesign the house as the model for a new, gated community; she calls herself a “life coach.” With them is their darkly depressed, goth, teenage daughter, Lydia (Sophia Anne Caruso), grieving for her late mother (whose funeral opens the show and about whom she even sings a song called “Dead Mom”). She’s also got that The Sixth Sense knack of seeing dead people. 
The plot's complexities, lots of them happening in the “netherworld,” and some of them extraneous and time-bloating, concern two main things: 1) Lydia’s scheming with the goofy Maitlands to scare the Deetzes away and abandon the house; 2) Beetlejuice’s efforts to get someone to say his name three times in a row, allowing him to return to life.

These springboards give free rein to a succession of inventive visual, comic, and musical delights, including some remarkable effects on David Korins’s wildly imaginative set via the magic of Kenneth Posner’s lights and Peter Nigrini’s projections.

The lyrics are often risibly clever but the music is best at creating upbeat rhythmic backgrounds for Connor Gallagher’s zanily manic, thrillingly acrobatic choreography. (In one number, a dancer flipped off the stage to make a perfect landing two inches from my aisle seat.) Too many of the tunes, though, sound like the generic, big-note numbers that seem to populate every other 21st-century musical. 
When it comes to those notes, though, few sock ‘em into the balcony like the terrific, sprite-like, 17-year-old Caruso. Still, when a new musical has to compete with two classic calypso numbers, also in the movie, “The Banana Boat Song” and “Shake Your Body Line,” the contrast between the kind of music you remember and the kind you don’t couldn’t be clearer. 
Beetlejuice is juiced with hydrogen-powered, cartoon-style performances that maintain enough humanity to let us accept the characters as minimally believable. Kritzer is a flashy treasure with Carol Burnett-like clown chops, while Kerry Butler and Rob McClure (she, especially) make you forget Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin as the movie originals.

Alex Brightman—whose School of Rock performance was eerily reminiscent of Jack Black’s in that show’s movie source—appears to have Black in his bones. Thrillingly energetic and comically crude as he is, it’s hard not to feel Black would play this part in much the same way. Doesn’t matter, as it’s impossible to take your eyes off him, or his ability to find the right look, tone, or rhythm for every line and reaction.
For all the show’s relentlessly hellsapoppin’ antics, you’ll need a youthful spirit to fully appreciate them. Some older theatregoers may wonder when the two-and-a-half-hour show’s hyper-sophomorism will finally wear out. As long as I was able to push such thoughts from my head, I had a pretty good time. I can’t deny occasionally feeling I was six feet under but that doesn't mean that Beetlejuice, which insists it's about death, isn't very much alive.

Winter Garden Theatre
1634 Broadway, NYC
Open run