In the new musical version of Tim Burton’s popular 1987 film Beetlejuice, the show’s title character, a dead spirit who wishes to return to the land of the living, seems to have one main goal: to create chaos. I suspect the show’s creators, including the ever-inventive director Alex Timbers, Australian songwriter Eddie Perfect (also responsible this season for King Kong), and book writers Scott Brown and Anthony King, have other goals in mind: to entertain us, to scare us, even to move us – and they do so occasionally. But mostly, they create chaos. What’s on stage now at the Winter Garden is among the most frenetic offerings ever seen on Broadway.
Unlike in the film, Beetlejuice (Alex Brightman in a completely manic but rarely malevolent performance) is both protagonist and narrator – introducing himself almost immediately in “The Whole Being Dead Thing,” a patter song full of meta-lyrics along with a quasi-summation about what’s to come over the next two and a half hours. Which, as it turns out, is an almost exhausting amount of musical numbers – some funny, some sad, some pointless – seemingly designed to distract us from the thinness of the plot.
Within minutes, Beetlejuice heartlessly kills off the white-bread owners of a Connecticut house, Adam and Barbara Maitland (Rob McClure and Kerry Butler, trying mightily to breathe life into their one-dimensional characters). But he also convinces them not to go straight to the netherworld – all in order to both have “best friends” and keep someone around to haunt the new homeowners and convince them to say his name three times in a row so he can become alive again.
However, the childless Maitlands soon become protective of teenaged resident Lydia Deetz (a fabulous Sophia Anne Caruso, somewhat channeling her cinematic predecessor, Winona Ryder, dressed in William Ivey Long’s goth-inspired ensembles). She is still mourning the recent death of her mother – and her father Charles (a sturdy Adam Dannheiser) is seemingly more interested in financial success and his new mistress, ditzy life coach Lydia (the hilarious Leslie Kritzer in a show-stealing turn) than paying much attention to his grieving daughter.
And once, for whatever inexplicable reason, it turns out that Lydia can actually see Beetlejuice – even though she’s not dead – they become temporary partners in mayhem, trying to exact revenge of Charles and Lydia, while also gaining what they really, truly want. Those objectives give the show whatever heart it possesses, and it might beat more steadily if Timbers and company (including choreographer Connor Gallagher) let the show come to a simmer now and then, rather than keep it at a constant boil.
It would also help if Perfect’s soft-rock power ballads – the closest the show comes to character songs – had a bit more weight to them, especially when needed. (The best songs in the show are actually two standards, “The Banana Boat Song” and “Jump in the Line,” both made famous decades ago by Harry Belafonte.) Indeed, you will most likely leave the show humming the Burton-inspired scenery (cleverly created by Tony winner David Korins, aided by Peter Negrini’s wondrous projections, Kenneth Posner’s dazzling lighting and Michael Curry’s ingenious puppets) rather than the score.
Still, Beetlejuice is far from dead on arrival. Its emphasis on humor, spectacle and, above all, its devil-may-care attitude lend this show more than a ghost of a chance of achieving mainstream (and Main Stem) success.