Maybe if they’d said it a fourth time. Three times – “Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!” – summons to life the stripe-coated, fright-wigged demon that made a superstar of Michael Keaton way back when. Could a fourth have magically conjured that extra something needed to transform Broadway’s Beetlejuice into something beyond the realm of good enough?
Directed by the busy and talented Alex Timbers (Moulin Rouge!, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), a long-in-the-making musical comedy Beetlejuice, based, faithfully if not enough, on Tim Burton’s 1988 film opens tonight at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre. There’s plenty worth a haunt here, from David Korins’ off-kilter spook house set to Alex Brightman’s raspy-voiced title performance and, most of all, the deliriously gorgeous singing of young Sophia Anne Caruso, and it all comes within reasonable reach of exorcising the bad vibes that attached themselves to the production during its pre-Broadway run in Washington D.C. But diminished expectations can lift a spirit only so far.
Along with Eddie Perfect’s samey musical score – pleasant enough in the moment, and more than that when Caruso breaks loose with a power ballad – the book by Scott Brown and Anthony King retains the best bits from the movie (“It’s showtime!”) without adding much of lasting value. William Ivey Long’s costumes (reprising the film’s fondly recalled get-ups, including young Lydia’s blood-red wedding dress), Kenneth Posner’s chiller-thriller lighting design and some nifty bats-and-ghosts projections by Peter Nigrini combine for a polished, full-on Broadway-scale look, and the Winter Garden theater itself looks beautiful in the glow of mood-setting green lights.
So what’s missing? In a word, Burton. Certainly there are flashes and nods here and there of that bizarro world genius – skewed bits of furniture, an extra arm or leg showing up uninvited, a giant double-headed sandworm making a fright of itself. The show even starts with an animated projection – a funeral scene, no less – that recalls The Nightmare Before Christmas, a promise Beetlejuice doesn’t quite keep.
To pick another moment where Burton seems most invisible: The Netherworld waiting room, one of the film’s most memorable scenes. In fact, one of Burton’s best. In the movie, the hellish waiting room is populated by any number of the passing-through, grisly aftermaths of recent demise: a bifurcated magician’s assistant, a flattened roadkill, the cigarette-smoking ash man, a heart-surgery patient with his chest still gaping, a scuba diver with shark attached, and, most famously, a shrunken-headed big game hunter and his witch doctor tormenter. Among others.
Some of them make it to Broadway – the pea-headed hunter, sans witch doctor, for example – but this waiting room mostly fills itself with costumed corpses that wouldn’t get a second look at a decent Halloween parade. Should we have to be told how the horse-thrown jockey died? Or recall from the movie that a bush crash took the football team? Shouldn’t those be visual jokes? They should. They aren’t, and Connor Gallagher’s lively choreography can’t compensate.
What does make some amends is the cast, at least the performers given characters worth dying for. Kerry Butler and, especially, Rob McClure are appropriately nerdy and lovable as the just-dead young marrieds, Pottery Barn types the show has some fun mocking. Leslie Kritzer is a stand-out as the unwelcome stepmom-to-be Delia (the great Catherine O’Hara in the movie), with a Seuss-style twist of hair and a seen-it-all, do-anything survival instinct. In fact, she’s so good – a joy when she’s on stage – that we have to take it on faith that anyone, even the mother-grieving teen Lydia (Caruso) could have anything against her.
The rest of the supporting cast can do little with what they’re given. Lydia’s father (Adam Dannheisser) is a stock stiff of a dad, and the much-foreshadowed outsiders – dinner guests Maxie and Maxine Dean (Danny Rutigliano, Jill Abromovitz), life coach-slash-exorcist Otho (Kelvin Moon Loh) – come and go without scaring the horses. In fact, Maxie and Maxine could be axed entirely if they weren’t needed to populate the recreation of the film’s best scene: The “Banana Boat Song (Day O)” number. Beetlejuice wouldn’t dare appear without it, though for what modest fun the anticipated bit delivers, it could.
In the co-starring role that’s not Beetlejuice, Caruso (who several years ago at 14 all but stole the Off Broadway Bowie musical Lazarus from Michael C. Hall with her show-stopping “Life On Mars?”) pulls off what might be the show’s most impressive illusion: She makes us believe the morbid Lydia’s self-described strangeness is just that, even when the girl’s interests and very cool black attire place her well within the non-strange spectrum of contemporary adolescence. Winona Ryder had it easier back in ’88, before Hot Topic hit the malls.
Finally, there’s Brightman, doing here what he did in 2015 at this very theater when he created a stage role from a well-known movie. Then it was School of Rock, and he was filling the shoes of the movie’s Jack Black – a simpler road to hoe, truth be told. As memorable as Black was in the film, he was hardly the iconic visage of Keaton’s Beetlejuice. Only Santino Fontana, currently starring in Broadway’s Tootsie in the Dustin Hoffman role, has as steep a challenge.
If Brightman doesn’t quite meet the task as sure-footedly as Fontana does, it’s because he doesn’t have material half as good. As Beetlejuice goes increasingly frantic in its second half, Brightman has no choice but to keep pace. The amiable charm that opens the show, when Beetlejuice directly addresses the audience with some clever expectation-lowering winks (forget the source material, he all but advises) gets lost in the rushed, end-of-show plot-resolving. Why they just didn’t dispense with the child-bride plotline that caps everything, rather than having to make repeated jokes to deflate it’s potential offensiveness, is a mystery not worth puzzling out. Maybe it was all just for that lovely crimson wedding gown. Beetlejuice runs itself ragged for less.