'Beetlejuice' review: Hilarious musical is full of tricks and surprises
Courtesy of Broadway in Detroit
A common practice in this artistic and creatively challenged world these days is the regurgitation of popular IP for mass audience consumption. It’s a struggle not just felt in the Broadway world, but in the film and television medium to the point where the top 10 highest grossing films of 2022 were either sequels or reboots. Movies being turned into musicals isn’t a new practice, though it seems the output of them has dramatically increased in recent memory (I’m still shaking off “Pretty Woman”), so I approached the musical “Beetlejuice” with some apprehension. After all, the 1988 classic which made Michael Keaton a box office star (and what helped him land “Batman”), is probably Tim Burton’s seminal film and is cherished around the world. How could this translate to the Broadway stage? Turns out, rather seamlessly.
Directed by Alex Timbers with music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect and book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, “Beetlejuice” is a laugh-out-loud riot that’s filled with plenty of confidence and wonderful theatrical innovation.
A fourth-wall-breaking farce where our lead character, (played with enough energetic prowess and one-liners to sink the Titanic by Justin Collette) immediately alerts the audience this isn’t the same Beetlejuice you grew up with. And maybe that’s a good thing: Collette’s spitfire characterization goes places Keaton never could: bawdy jokes about gay republicans, book burnings, death, and, er, STDs, plus the occasional F-bomb, aren’t off limits in this production and it’s equally a delight to look at. Scenic designer David Korins leans into what made the 1988 film special, complete with signature styles inspired by four-time Oscar nominee (and frequent Tim Burton collaborator) Bo Welch and the storybook imagination of Dr. Seuss.
But as Beetlejuice proudly declares from the onset: “Such a bold departure from the original source material,” things are, indeed, different. It’s true considering in the film we didn’t meet Keaton’s rag-tag ghoul until later in the film, and the musical wastes no time acclimating us to his wild shenanigans. It results in a musical that feels like a fresh interpretation on the dated material, fostering characters and plot developments that offer, albeit briefly, a mature nuance compared to the OG comedy.
For example, this “Beetlejuice” puts a major emphasis on teenager Lydia (newcomer Isabelle Esler, who is terrific), played in the film by Winona Ruder. Lydia is struggling with the recent death of her mother, but her father Charles (Jesse Sharp) would rather move on and start a new life with eccentric lifecoach Delia (Kate Marilley - amazing). They’ve all just moved into a home to see if Dad can make it into a viable investment opportunity after the owners, Barbara (Britney Coleman) and Adam (Will Burton), were killed in an electrocution accident. But Beetlejuice has other plans and enlists his newly deceased pals to trick (or scare) these new tenants into saying his name three times and the results are, let's just say, worth the wait.
The plotting becomes a bit chaotic during the first act, especially as it takes time getting accustomed to the vaudeville style and cartoonish antics Collette is cooking up. For a minute, it seemed like “Beetlejuice” was going to be a one-note comedic snarkfest with too much sensory overload and not enough memorable jams. Eventually, the show finds its footing although whenever Collette is absent from the stage, the show loses momentum and you’re anxiously awaiting his return.
Sound designer Peter Hylenski has his work cut out for him as does music director Andy Grobengieser who underscore each scene with various background noises and silly sounds. (This in addition to the show’s demanding catalog of tunes). Choreographer Connor Gallagher deserves nobility for the impeccable “Jump the Line” musical sequence at the end of Act 1 that’s extremely satisfying and requires the performers to harbor incredible timing and physicality. Costumes by William Ivey Long are an eclectic collection of iconic looks that’s color palette shines under the occasionally blinding strobe effects.
Collectively, they elevate “Beetlejuice” beyond its namesake and deliver a cracker jack haunted house musical comedy that’s chock full of tricks, surprises and laughs.
Just don’t say his name three times.
BEETLEJUICE continues at the Detroit Opera House through Sunday February 12th. Tickets can be purchased via Ticketmaster.