An inventive and clever adaptation of the popular Tim Burton film from 1988, “Beetlejuice: The Musical, The Musical, The Musical” does everything right by creating something new from a familiar and beloved source.
For the last few decades, Broadway has become a bastion of biopic musicals and movie adaptations. Many of the film-to-musical creations fall flat (“Pretty Woman,” for example) because they stick too close to the source material – from outfits to dialogue, most of the time, you find yourself wanting to just go back and watch the movie it came from.
This was my fear when I saw Beetlejuice was becoming a musical. It felt like it would be just a lot of nods to the original film, awkward songs that just tell you what you’re already seeing, and actors imitating the original actors and dialogue. In fact, I had almost no interest in seeing the show, despite the pretty good reviews it was getting.
So, to my delight, “Beetlejuice” is one of those movie musical adaptations that does it right. Book writers Scott Brown and Anthony King don’t follow the film exactly, and in fact, the opening scene already subverts expectations. Within seconds you realize this won’t follow the film’s exact plot, which cleverly sets you up for surprises. (The character of Beetlejuice even calls this out in one of his numbers where he consistently breaks the fourth wall.)
In this incarnation, Lydia Deetz (famously played by Winona Ryder in the original film and now brought to life by Isabella Esler) is not just a moody, goth girl moving with her parents to an old Victorian Mansion so they can give it a makeover. She is a girl who goes dark to deal with the grief of losing her mother. Her father, Charles (Jesse Sharp), and his secret lover/stylist/life coach Delia (Kate Marilley), still move to the house to set it up for investors in hopes they can build an upscale community, but Lydia’s desire to move back home is set aside for something a bit more emotional. She wants her mom back.
Meanwhile, we still have the previous owners of the house (Barbara and Adam, played by Britney Coleman and Will Burton) who die in a new way and end up stuck in the house as ghosts. There they meet the comically gifted, demonically birthed Beetlejuice (an astounding Justin Collette), who just wants to be able to join the real world. All he needs is someone to say his name three times, and then he can wreak havoc he so dearly wants to.
When it is discovered that Lydia can actually see our friendly ghosts, we realize she can also see Beetlejuice. While everyone wants the Deetzes out of the house, Lydia is determined to figure out a way to find her mother because, hell, she’s friends with a bunch of dead people, right? Beetlejuice offers to help (for his own reasons-obviously) and tries to get the trio to bring him out of hell and to the real world. Of course, they do, and that’s when all hell actually does break loose in humorous and even emotional ways.
While the production certainly takes nods from the film’s original production design, the sets are inventive and are created to work in a more musical theater environment. There’s no attempt to overdo it with whacky special effects, even though the play is full of them. It finds a nice balance between the over-the-top nuttiness of Burton’s film and something a bit more colorfully earthbound.
The music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect are sharp and fun and give the show a consistent buoyancy that never fails to keep your interest. Sure, about half of the songs end with the same bombastic final note with the actor’s arms locked in a full extension, but it somehow adds to the “this is a show” aspect of the production. Standout numbers include “Creepy Old Guy,” “The Whole Being Dead Thing,” and “Barbara 2.0.” That’s not to say there aren’t some effective ballads here either – both given to Lydia. In “Dead Mom,” she pleads with her mom to hear her pain and the tough situation she finds herself in since her absence. “Dead mom, I’m tired of trying/ to iron out my creases/I’m a bunch of broken pieces.” In the Act Two, 11 o’clock number “Home,” Lydia accepts that her mother isn’t returning, and she needs to find her new normal.” Spinning on this infinite road/terrified of letting you go/no light above and there’s no hope below/And I don’t know which way’s home.” It’s powerful and heart-wrenching.
While the show’s spectacle delivers on all levels, the touring cast is the cherry on top of this crazy cake. Collette’s Beetlejuice never tries to directly mimic Michael Keaton’s classic performance. Instead, he adds his own spin with an oddly sexy, funny, and, do I say, devilishly charming performance. Sure, he’s supposed to be a foul demon from the depths of hell, but his (now bi-sexual) persona has many layers. It looks like an exhausting role to conquer, but he does it easily with endless pointed jokes, winks to the audience, and energetic musical numbers.
Esler’s Lydia is a marvel as well. Nodding to Ryder’s gloomy teenager, she adds a bit of self-awareness that benefits the story and her emotional journey. Not only that, but her voice is jaw-dropping.
Marilley as Delia (originated by Catherine O’Hara in the film), does her own version of the self-involved, spiritually non-sensical trophy girlfriend. But even here, the character isn’t one-note. While she’s mainly there for comic relief and to bounce off of Lydia, she has a bit of a journey in finding where she fits with the Deetzes.
Both Coleman and Burton, as Barbara and Adam, are a hoot to watch as they overcome the roles they thought they needed to fill in life and find new versions of themselves to love. They are funnier and goofier than Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis’ takes on the characters, almost reminiscent of Brad and Janet from “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
It can’t be overstated that the book really does take the original source material and alters it quite a bit to make it work on stage. Brown and King even take recognizable side characters and give them more to do. When Lydia enters the Netherworld to look for her mom, all of the characters we love from the film’s “waiting room” scene are there and ready to leap into a big old-fashioned production number. Called “What I Know Now,” the number is led by Miss Argentina (Danielle Marie Gonzalez), a dead pageant queen who regrets how she lived her life.
Giving Lydia her journey through grief offers a surprisingly emotional resonance to the “show about death,” and even our newly dead Barbara and Adam learn a bit about what they should have wanted out of life.
This is clearly a show that appeals to the masses. From theater lovers to tourists just looking for a familiar spectacle, “Beetlejuice” delivers in spades. You might want to avoid saying his name three times unless you want to unleash his craziness on your world, but then again, he was weirdly adorable, so I say give into your desires.
“Beetlejuice” is a total blast and a fantastic way to spend a summer night. Not to mention, it’s the perfect way to usher in the Halloween season, which is but a few months away!