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A CurtainUp Review
Brightman's wisecrack about the disparity between this musical and its silver-screen source gets a big laugh and proves prophetic. What's most striking about Beetlejuice: The Musical is the degree to which dramatists Scott Brown and Anthony King and composer/lyricist Eddie Perfect have reimagined the screenplay by Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren. They've not merely realigned details; they've discarded numerous elements and fabricated clever replacements that make the nonsensical plot work handily in the context of musical comedy. The result is radical silliness reminiscent of Broadway musicals before Rodgers and Hammerstein made the art form serious — Babes in Toyland, No, No, Nanette, and Anything Goes, for instance.
A conceit of Burton's 1988 film is that mortals are more horrific than the ghosts they encounter. When Adam and Barbara — a wholesome, house-proud couple played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis — die in a freak car accident, they return in their newly immaterial form to the Connecticut home they occupied in life. There they find icky big-city folks (Catherine O'Hara, Jeffrey Jones, and Winona Ryder) moving in and commencing renovation. The movie is noteworthy for its superb cast, which also includes Sylvia Sydney in a very funny late-career performance.
The musical's central conflict, like that of the movie, is triggered by the reaction of Barbara (Kerry Butler) and Adam (Rob McClure) to the new residents (Adam Dannheisser, Leslie Kritzer, and Sophia Anne Caruso) and their tasteless redecoration. The ghostly couple try to scare off the interloping mortals but discover they have no talent for house haunting, For assistance, they turn to Beetlejuice, who incites pandemonium wherever he goes.
In the movie, Keaton doesn't appear until the action is well under way. In a crowd-pleasing decision, the authors of the musical have elected to bring on Brightman at the outset.
The musical's Beetlejuice is described by one of the mortal characters as looking "like a bloated zebra that a lion ripped apart and then didn't eat 'cause something was obviously wrong with it so it just rotted in the hot African sun." That's a fair description of how Brightman makes the role his own. His Beetlejuice is a hot mess existing at the cutting edge of weird, as was Keaton's; but Brightman is weird and messy with a difference. And, of course, he sings — or, rather belts. Only time will tell whether Brightman's vocal equipment can withstand eight performances a week of this score's intensity.
Like the movie, the musical has been cast with artists who are first-rate clowns. Under the resourceful direction of Alex Timbers, the principals form a sublime ensemble. Running relentlessly around David Korins' spectacular set, they create maximal mayhem in a story too complicated and absurd to recount here.
While Brightman has the choicest comic material, Kritzer fares almost as well. As Delia, a character corresponding to O'Hara's role in the movie but entirely different, Kritzer is the center of attention whenever on stage. She plays a live-in life coach for Lydia (Caruso), a Goth teen who proclaims herself "strange and unusual." While Lydia has been devoting herself wholeheartedly to mourning her mother (or "Dead Mom," as she calls this off-stage character), the live-in life coach has become live-in squeeze to Charles (Dannheisser), Lydia's father.
Kritzer is a master at crackpot repartee. It's hard to imagine a line too dumb for her to exploit effectively for a laugh. When Delia brags about her influence on Lydia, for instance, Kritzer draws guffaws with clueless exuberance: "Life coaching! Yes! It's NOT a fad! DO THE RESEARCH."
When Lydia and her father travel to the land of the dead in Act Two, Kritzer doubles as a deceased beauty-pageant contestant, blue-green from head to toe, officiously greeting newcomers and demanding they study the Handbook for the Newly Deceased.
"I am the once and forever Miss Argentina, Kritzer exclaims in an accent that's hilarious, though hardly South American (and something less than politically correct). "I died with this sash, they can never take it away!"
This caricature is derived from the movie (in which Miss Argentina was portrayed by Patrice Martinez), though modified by costumer William Ivey Long's distinctive aesthetic and Kritzer's special flourishes. The sequence may be distasteful, for a variety of reasons, to a few spectators at every performance; but Kritzer elicits waves of laughter from the auditorium with her brief appearance in the part.
McClure and Butler are superb, as always, and would be welcome in any musical production; but they're sadly underused here. Jill Abramovitz and Danny Rutigliano are the zaniest third bananas in town. Abramovitz, like Butler and McClure, deserves more time on stage and stronger comic material.
Fine as they are (and despite unflagging energy), the actors are frequently upstaged by the intriguing scenery and Michael Curry's irresistible puppets. The sets, with their zany proportions, vivid hues, and surprising bells and whistles, depict various parts of Adam and Barbara's Victorian fixer-upper, a cemetery (of course), and the realm of the dead (or at least its reception area). Like David Zinn's elaborate designs for last season's SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, the Beetlejuice sets, lights, projections, and sound plot aren't confined by the theater's proscenium arch and they don't rest during intermission.
Korins is admirably supported by light-man Kenneth Posner, sound designer Peter Hylenski (who handles with aplomb an acoustically challenging auditorium), the projections of Peter Nigrini, and Jeremy Chernick's special effects. The show's aesthetic is often closer to Edward Gorey than Tim Burton; and, despite touches reminiscent of the movie (of course, the shrunken-head man is faithfully reproduced), the look and feel of the show are fresh and new.
It's likely this musical's creators were drawn to their source material in part because the movie relies heavily on "musical-comedy logic" (the same dynamic that keeps us from tallying the things that don't make sense in Hello, Dolly!). There's little in the Beetlejuice screenplay that could withstand rational analysis; but clever writing, impeccably timed performances, and expert camera work and editing function throughout like a magician's sleight of hand. In Beetlejuice: The Musical, there are moments when relentless exuberance becomes monotonous and it's hard not to ponder all that doesn't add up in the story. Those moments are relatively few and, fortunately, when they occur, the eclectic musical score, the visual humor, and the cast's hijinks soon reassert themselves, distracting us once again from our disbelief.
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Book by Scott Brown and Anthony King
Music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect
(Based on the Geffen Company motion picture)
Directed by Alex Timbers
Choreographed by Connor Gallagher
Cast: Jill Abramovitz (Maxine/Dean/Juno), Alex Brightman (Beetlejuice), Kerry Butler (Barbara Maitland), Sophia Anne Caruso (Lydia Deetz), Adam Dannheisser (Charles Deetz), Leslie Kritzer (Delia Deetz), Kelvin Moon Loh (Otho), Rob McClure (Adam Maitland), Danny Rutigliano (Maxie Dean), Dana Steingold (Girl Scout) Ensemble: Tessa Alves, Gilbert L. Bailey II, Will Blum, Johnny Brantley III, Ryan Breslin, Natalie Charle Ellis, Brooke Engen, Eric Anthony Johnson, Elliott Mattox, Mateo Melendez, Sean Montgomery, Ramone Owens, Presley Ryan, Kim Sava
Scenic Design by David Korins
Costume Design by William Ivey Long
Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner
Sound Design by Peter Hylenski
Hair and Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe
Make-Up Design by Joe Dulude, II
Projection Design by Peter Nigrini
Puppet Design by Michael Curry
Musical Supervisor & Orchestrator: Kris Kukul
Special Effects by Jeremy Chernick
Illusions by Michael Weber
Physical Movement Coordinator: Lorenzo Pisoni
Production Stage Manager: Matthew DiCarlo
Running Time: Two hours and forty minutes, with one intermission
Winter Garden Theatre (1634 Broadway) From 3/28/19; opened 4/25/19
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 4/19/2019 press preview
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