This critic didn’t see the version of Beetlejuice in Washington, D.C., that received a critical mauling. That mauling was resounding enough to approach Beetlejuice on Broadway, which opens Thursday night (at the Winter Garden, to October 6) with trepidation—and it also seems to have galvanized the production to change too, seemingly all for the better.
In this musical version of Tim Burton’s 1988 movie (many years in the making), gone post-D.C. is a weird-sounding boyband number, and the sight of a teenage girl selling Girl Scout cookies being chased by a troupe of male ghosts. The music and script have been rebooted.
Last month, the New York Post’s Michael Riedel reported that director Alex Timbers “sat down with the creative team and went through the show ‘beat by beat,’ expunging all that was tasteless, lewd and inappropriate in the post-#MeToo era. He also asked for better jokes and songs.
“He realized the show as written can’t be done in the cultural landscape we’re living in,” another source told Riedel. “He wanted to get rid of what was gross and cheap, and find another way of telling the story.”
Timbers and team have certainly done that. Beetlejuice, as it now presents itself, is a loopy, nutty, loud, winning hoot. It’s still pretty tasteless, lewd and inappropriate too—just acceptably so. It is marks the final Broadway opening of Tony Awards season, the fifth in this final week; the nominations for all the eligible dramas and musicals will be announced on Tuesday.
The cast and creative team of Beetlejuice pay tribute to Burton in the musical’s program, writing that the director’s imagination “has inspired us all throughout our many years working on this show. We are grateful that he cleared a path for us to play in the extraordinary world of his creation.”
If you are a fan of the film, there are plot similarities and divergences. Actually, the story careens all over the place, which doesn’t matter because the performances are mostly excellent and the sets by David Korins notably stunning (including a mansion living room seemingly redecorated mid-performance).
Peter Nigrini’s projections and Kenneth Posner’s lighting, particularly evoking the Netherworld, deserve awards all of their own; they’re that hypnotically impressive. William Ivey Long’s costumes—from Beetlejuice’s (Alex Brightman) stripy suits to Lydia’s (Sophia Anne Caruso) goth wear and frilled red wedding dress—are gorgeous.
Eddie Perfect’s songs and Connor Gallagher’s choreography are a colorfully married riot, with the occasional ballad thrown in to underscore the play’s valiant attempt at staying serious. Scott Brown and Anthony King’s book is full of snark, spark, and wit.
We first meet Beetlejuice, complaining about the musical itself. “Holy crap! A ballad already,” he kvetches. He complains about everything, but if we are to understand anything, it’s that his stinky malevolence is down to loneliness. Brightman is a gale of moods, a demented clown; he is a prince of anarchy and also a whining dweeb, a joker and self-pitying tragedian.
This is why he is so horrified by the balanced natures and sweet functionality of Barbara (Kerry Butler) and Adam (the brilliant Rob McClure), who at the start of the show are happily getting a home ready for a family of their own. But then, disaster strikes: they die. They are the peppiest of plaid-clad suburbanites: bland, vanilla, and goofily charming.
Beetlejuice suggests they haunt their own home, driving new owner Charles (Adam Dannheisser) and daughter Lydia (Sophia Anne Caruso) from the house. Charles is having a relationship with Delia (Leslie Kritzer), a life coach who’s lived a bit on many sides of the tracks. Kritzer’s performance is one of the comic cherries-on-top of the Broadway season, and even has its own showstopping song-and-dance routine at the top of act two.
All kinds of chaos unfolds as Barbara and Adam’s haunting plans fall flat, and Beetlejuice’s plans, which are bigger and much badder than Barbara and Adam’s simple frights, get more and more elaborate and deadly in intention.
“This is a show about death,” we are told at the beginning, and Beetlejuice isn’t kidding. Prepare also for giant sand worms, dancing skeletons, and lots of zingers, along with fourth walls being smashed, and a stage that is a frenzy of activity and visual delights.
There is still the creepiness of Beetlejuice wanting to marry the teenage Lydia, but throughout this song-and-dance sequence we are reassured “it’s only for a green card,” and that the age-gap marriage is creepy in multiple cultural contexts. It's still an oddly yukky premise and song, but has been made just about acceptable with its repeated qualifications.
Indeed, Caruso has the trickiest role: to play a sulky brat, and also a wounded teenager missing her dead mom and thereby piloting the musical’s serious moments around navigating grief and parental loss. Her character also shares top billing with Brightman's title character. Her ballads and earnestness are the only brakes on the craziness elsewhere; this nightmare circus eventually includes a dead pig brought to life.
Yes, the show is an extremely long two and a half plus hours, yes it feels off-balance in places, but it is also shameless, big, bold, fun and brassy. This is the miss that may well become a hit.