Welcome to the show about death
From its opening number, self-proclaimed “show about death”, one might be forgiven for thinking that Beetlejuice is going to be a thoroughly depressing, existential ride. As it happens, however, Beetlejuice is a rollercoaster ride of delicious, supernatural chaos that is simply giddily joyous.
Based on Tim Burton’s 1988 classic, Beetlejuice is clear from the start that it is not beholden to the source material and, though the plot shares many similarities it is different in many ways. Beetlejuice: The Musical. The Musical. The Musical. focuses the narrative on Lydia Deetz’s (Elizabeth Teeter) grief over the loss of her mother and how this alienates her from her father Charles (Adam Dannheisser), especially considering his new relationship with life coach Delia (Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer). Lydia and her family move into a house that previously belonged to Barbara (Kerry Butler) and Adam Maitland (David Josefsberg), who died within their house. Barbara and Adam, with the help of malevolent demon Beetlejuice (Alex Brightman), plan to scare away the Deetzs by haunting the house, but soon the competing motives of Barbara and Adam, Lydia and Beetlejuice collide in unexpected and surprising ways.
The musical version of Beetlejuice, despite morbidly titling itself as a show about death is principally concerned with grief. The forward thrust of the narrative is Lydia’s unresolved feelings over her mother’s death and her desire to communicate with her is only exacerbated upon learning of the existence of Barbara, Adam, Beetlejuice and the Netherworld: a plot point that is entirely missing from the film, which has more of a focus upon Adam and Barbara themselves. Lydia’s emotional journey is the beating heart that keeps the audience invested amidst the thoroughly diverting fun that Beetlejuice causes.
Beetlejuice‘s Broadway journey is almost as chaotic as the onstage energy, originally playing at The Winter Garden from April 2019, before setting a closing date of June 2020 owing to the scheduled debut of The Music Man. As it happened, the shuttering of theatres in March 2020 necessitated an abrupt end to Beetlejuice, with its future uncertain. The pandemic, however, attracted new fans to the musical through many viral sounds on TikTok and Beetlejuice lived on, returning to Broadway, now at the Marquis Theatre with an official opening night of April 2022.
Throughout the show, Beetlejuice is consistently visually engaging. David Korins‘ beautifully gothic manor set chimes in perfectly with the spirit and aesthetic of Tim Burton’s film and his overall scenic design is stunning inventive, with many set pieces doubling as multiple locations through seamlessly moving walls. The show also makes brilliant use of special effects and illusions (Jeremy Chernick and Michael Weber) making for a feast for the senses. This sense of energy is nicely contrasted with the rendering of the Netherworld, which is hauntingly simple, visually represented as a never-ending abyss of slightly off-kilter luminous rectangles stretching into the distance, the sound design (Peter Hylenski) altering to add a disturbing echo. This major juxtaposition really helps with Lydia’s character development within the second act and makes for a refreshing change for the audience compared to the constant surprises when surrounded by Beetlejuice’s character.
The book (Scott Brown and Anthony King) is incredibly tongue-in-cheek and irreverent. Beetlejuice as a character dominates here, and he is a tumultuous whirlwind of energy. He is unbridled id, jumping from impulse to impulse at the turn of the hat, which is giddily enjoyable to witness. It’s a role that is quite similar to Jack Black’s Dewey Finn dialled up to an even 20 (which makes sense, considering Alex Brightman played this role in Broadway’s School of Rock) – a character who seemingly lacks a moral compass and just says and does whatever pops into his head at a given moment. It’s this level of brazen, outrageous unpredictability that makes viewing so deliciously entertaining. The show also manages repeated breaks of the fourth wall in an entirely cohesive way such is the unusual nature of this central character.
Matching the tone and energy of the piece is Eddie Perfect‘s soundtrack. From thoroughly energetic, propulsive ensemble numbers, laden with ample percussion, brass and guitar, the songs reflect the mood of the characters. “Dead Mom”, Lydia’s first solo, highlights her anger at her father amidst her tremendous grief, while the stillness of opening number “Invisible” highlights her internal sense of emptiness. “Home” is a brilliantly structured Act 2 song that successfully ties up Lydia’s emotional trajectory and is massively impactful in the way that it builds to a climax.
Elizabeth Teeter is the beating heart of the show. Vocally, Beetlejuice is an absolute beast (RIP Sophia Anne Caruso‘s vocal chords, taken from us too soon, 2019-2020) and she manages to convey Lydia’s outrage and hurt with an incredibly healthy belt. Without Lydia’s emotional journey, Beetlejuice would be all style and no substance and it is only fitting that she gets her richly earned final bow. Alex Brightman is also incredible, injecting the show with its infectious, frenzied energy. Never has a demonic villain been so fun. Natalie Charle Ellis (standby for Delia) was also a standout at this particular performance, mining much humour for Delia’s “No Reason” (in which Delia gets distracted from her life coaching to lament her ex-husband leaving with his new boyfriend for Rome and having to freeze her eggs and buy a cat, after referring to the universe as a female best friend).
Overall, Beetlejuice is screamingly good fun. A fantastic score, accompanied by a devilishly funny book, an effervescent energy and inventive set makes this a theatrical treat. If this is what being haunted by spectres is like, then sign me up (please don’t quote me on that one). Fingers crossed that this fantastic show makes the journey across the pond to the West End sooner rather than later.
Beetlejuice is currently playing at the Marquis Theatre, accepting bookings until January 8th 2023. Tickets can be booked directly here.