Pure escapist fun, new Broadway musical Beetlejuice runs high on daffy hilarity with an irresistible undercurrent of snarky wickedness.
In sharp relief to serious, award-bait fare such as Hadestown and Dear Evan Hansen, Beetlejuice was never going to please po-faced local critics looking for the next Pulitzer Prize winner or the likes. Sitting alongside current musical comedies Mean Girls and The Prom, it was always going to be the audience that judged the merits of Beetlejuice, and the show has emerged as a sassy, crowd-pleasing guilty pleasure.
The spooky atmosphere begins upon entering the auditorium of the storied Winter Garden Theatre, where the chandelier globes are now green, and magenta and blue spotlights comb the crowd.
The plot of the 1988 movie has been deftly tweaked to flesh out proceedings, beginning now with the Burton-esque funeral of young Lydia’s mother. Part ghost, part coke-addled clown, Beetlejuice is on hand as our gleeful guide through this “show about death.” Young couple Barbara and Adam die in a renovating accident rather than a car accident, soon seen in the afterlife by Lydia when she, her father Charles and life coach Delia move into the couple’s home.
There is something of a commedia dell’arte structure to the story, with the tight first act focussing on Beetlejuice’s desire for someone to say his name three times, while act two sees Lydia try to bring back her Mother from the netherworld. Act one gradually introduces a quirky set of characters, leading to a very funny finale when the company find themselves singing “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” while facing Beetlejuice’s full arsenal of horrors. Storytelling energy flags somewhat in act two, but there is nonetheless a spirited climax in store.
The writing of Beetlejuice is particularly successful in regard to the seamless blend of songs (by Eddie Perfect) and book scenes (by Scott Brown and Anthony King), which are both at the exact same level of winking humour. Perfect achieves additional success in finding the perfect muse in Alex Brightman, who effectively channels Perfect’s larrikin spirit when playing Beetlejuice (even the hairstyle is the same). The songs are stronger in terms of lyrics and rhythm than pure melody, but this is exactly what is required, and the crowd responds enthusiastically to the instantly accessible score.
Design is at the sort of premium level only seen on Broadway. In David Korins’ haunted house, no two lines are parallel. Broadway legend William Ivey Long matches the spectacle in terms of costumes, even fitting in one of his iconic “unwrapping” dresses, when Delia spins across the room in the act one finale.
Director Alex Timbers keeps energy sky high, bringing out delectable comic performances from the full company of featured performers. Connor Gallagher’s choreography is similarly energetic, exploding across the stage in time with Perfect’s toe-tapping tempi.
Sophia Anne Caruso (Lydia) has an extraordinary belt that belies her petite frame.
Broadway favourite Kerry Butler is reliably adorable as new ghost Barbara, with talented leading man Rob McClure as her devoted husband Adam.
Leslie Kritzer nails every laugh as woke life coach Delia.
While the strong language may discourage attendance by the full family, the next generation of teenagers are set to fall in love with Broadway thanks to Beetlejuice.
Beetlejuice was reviewed 7pm Thursday 27 June 2019 at Winter Garden Theatre, New York.
Photos: Matthew Murphy