New York City Theater
Winter Garden Theater
Maybe it wasn’t that funny to begin with. The stage musical version of “Beetlejuice,” based on the 1998 Tim Burton cult film, certainly isn’t. Yet, according to reports, it’s more expensive ($15 million for the movie; $21 million for the musical). Crude and frantic, the stage production proves that money doesn’t necessarily buy quality.
At least the film had Michael Keaton, in an off-the-wall performance as the title character. Along with his fright wig and kohl-blackened eyes, he wore a black-and-white striped suit that suggested he’d just escaped from the loony bin.
In the musical, Alex Brightman, so excellent in “School of Rock,” does an acceptable job of channeling Keaton’s gravelly voice. Yet the surrounding atmosphere is tame on one hand and salacious on the other. (“You give me a boner,” says Brightman, handing over a real bone) and the material so tweaked that it turns lugubrious instead of just plain black, thanks to an added story line about the other-worldly search for a dead mother.
Young Lydia, her father and his madcap mistress (a terrific Leslie Kritzer) move into the home that once belonged to the deceased Barbara and Adam Maitland. Upset at having strangers in their house, the Maitlands accept the aid of the dead Beetlejuice, their guide to the other side, to scare the intruders into leaving.
The opening, the funeral of teenage Lydia’s mother, leads into “The Whole ‘Being Dead’ Thing” with its meta lyrics that reference the Winter Garden Theater, the ladies’ bathroom, doing eight show a week, cell phones and, later on, even “Brigadoon.” From the start, we know the show will be commenting on itself. By not taking the comedy seriously, it fails to engage.
Librettists Scott Brown and Anthony King try for significance and heart, but end up with maudlin. The dead mom subplot muddies the waters. They did improve one aspect of the film, though, by having Beetlejuice in from the beginning, giving him a run-of-the-show presence that Keaton didn’t have.
Other positives are Dana Steingold as a frightened Girl Scout (“When you’re a girl scout / Everything’s gonna work out”) and the use of the Harry Belafonte hits, “Day-O “and “Jump in the Line” (also in the movie), which turn out to be the best songs in the show. Otherwise, Eddie Perfect’s score in unmemorable, though sung as if it really mattered.
Sophia Anne Caruso is a morose Lydia, Adam Dannheisser a solid father with Rob McClure and Kerry Butler attractively dopey as the Maitlands.
David Korins’ sets are jaw-dropping, as are William Ivey Long’s bizarre costumes and Michael Curry’s puppet design. Kenneth Posner’s lighting is blindingly hyperactive, while Connor Gallagher’s choreography and Alex Timbers’ direction are as adequate as the show.
--David A. Rosenberg
May 1, 2019