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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 25, 2019

Beetlejuice Music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect. Book by Scott Brown and Anthony King. Based on the Geffen Company picture with a story by Michael McDowell and Larry Wilson. Directed by Alex Timbers. 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. Special effects design by Jeremy Chernick. Magic and illusion design Michael Weber. Hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Make-up design by Joe Dulude II. Additional arrangements by Eddie Perfect and Kris Kukul. Dance arrangements by David Dabbon. Music producer Matt Stine. Music coordinator Howard Jones. Physical movement coordinator Lorenzo Pisoni. Associate director Catie Davis. Associate choreographer Nancy Renee Braun. Musical supervision, orchestration, and incidental music by Kris Kukul. Choreographed by Connor Gallagher. Cast: Alex Brightman, Sophia Anne Caruso, Kerry Butler, Rob McClure, Adam Dannheisser, Leslie Kritzer, Jill Abramovitz, Danny Rutigliano, Kelvin Moon Loh, Dana Steingold, Tessa Alves, Gilbert L. Bailey II, Johnny Brantley III, Ryan Breslin, Abe Goldfarb, Elliott Mattox, Matteo Melendez, Ramone Owens, Presley Ryan, and Kim Sava.
Theatre: Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway between West 50th and 51st Streets
Tickets: Telecharge

Alex Brightman and Sophia Anne Caruso
Photo by Matthew Murphy

If sheer dint of will could allow a lead balloon to become airborne, then Beetlejuice, "The Musical, The Musical, The Musical" as it identifies itself on the cover of the Playbill, would allow Alex Brightman to be hired on the spot by NASA. Brightman busts a gut as the title character in his unrelenting, used car-salesman effort to sell, sell, sell the show that opens tonight at the Winter Garden Theatre. But for all his efforts, Beetlejuice only occasionally hovers a couple of feet above the ground before it comes crashing back down under its own weight.

As much as I would argue against the advisability of approaching a screen-to-stage adaptation by cleaving closely to the source material, I wish the creative team behind this musical would have repeatedly watched Tim Burton's 1988 movie, taken lots of notes, and attempted to reproduce it, or at least to capture its anarchic spirit and the so-crude-its-actually-funny burlesque, baggy pants gusto that Michael Keaton brought to the film's outrageous character, Beetlejuice, or more properly, "Betelgeuse," named for what a quick Internet search tells us is the "ninth brightest star in the night sky," itself is an appropriately sly and funny thought.

If you haven't seen the movie or need a reminder, a brief summary of the plot is this: A young couple dies, but they remain tied to their home as ghosts. A new and annoying family moves in, and the dead couple elicit the aid of a wildly uncontrollable spirit, a poltergeist type if you will, to drive them out. In the film, Keaton absolutely owns the title role by being as unapologetically rude, crude, in-your-face obnoxiously comic as possible. Here, however, Brightman's Beetlejuice simply does not go far enough, and just in case anyone might be offended, he repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to reassure us he is just kidding. Goodness, are we so delicate these days that we need to be protected from an off-color joke? Don't apologize. Go for it, for crying out loud!

In a way, Brightman is giving us a variation on his performance in another rather more successful film-to-musical adaption in which he also starred, School of Rock. There he showed an underlying likeability as a rowdy slacker guy with a surprising affinity and a real knack for working with kids. In Beetlejuice, he also works with and frequently defers to a young person, the very talented, but still a teenager herself, Sophia Anne Caruso. She plays Lydia, the 15-year-old daughter of the man who has bought the property and yanked her from her life, school, and friends in New York. Just what every teenage girl dreams of.

Leslie Kritzer and Adam Dannheisser
Photo by Matthew Murphy

In the film, Lydia, played by Winona Ryder, sees herself as an oddball outsider, a goth girl who dresses always in black. It's a funny image, playing on the angst of adolescents who don't really have all that much to be angsty about. In the musical, however, Lydia does have something to be bleak about, and it is one of the elements that threatens to sink the show. Her mother has just died, and her father, Charles (Adam Dannheisser), pretty much ignores her while bringing into her life and into his bed a "life coach," Delia (Leslie Kritzer, one of the few to give a fittingly quirky performance), who is there to help Lydia get over her grief. Delia's catch phrase is the all-too-apt: "Every success begins with ‘sucks' but ends with ‘yes.' SucksYes!"

While the mother's death allows for a promising opening scene, an Edward Gorey-like funeral, there is no follow-through in tone. Goth can be funny. The death of a beloved parent? Not so much. The plot twist here, such as it is, is that Lydia joins forces with the nice dead couple (Kerry Butler and Rob McClure, both of whose considerable talents are largely wasted here), and later with Beetlejuice, so that she can use them to find her mother in the netherworld. Doesn't suggest a lot of yuks, nor does it inspire any.

On the upside, there are a couple of delightful songs that contribute some bright spots. You may have heard of them before: the calypso tunes that also played a prominent role in the film, "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)" which ends Act I, and "Jump In Line (Shake, Shake Senora)" that closes the show. As for the rest of the score, composer and lyricist Eddie Perfect, who is also currently represented on Broadway with King Kong, provides serviceable tunes and lyrics that are maudlin, or that force the jokes, or that lead to attempts at tongue-in-cheek moments. As an example, there is an early number sung by Lydia about losing her mom, after which Brightman as Beetlejuice jumps in with: "Holy crap! A ballad already?"

Visually, fans of the film will be happy to see the sandworm, the guy with the shrunken head, the dancing pig, and the Girl Scout and others who show up and die cartoonishly during Beetlejuice's reign of terror-lite, but these are just reproductions, and not even very good ones at that. David Korins' set design and William Ivey Long's costumes are better in that they are suggestive without being mimics. But no one, including director Alex Timbers, has been able to figure out how to bring the dead to life. Beetlejuice the musical is in need of an exorcism.


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