What could be more Halloween than “Beetlejuice” on stage at the fabulously ornate Fox Theater? Tom Burton’s 1988 beloved comedy BEETLEJUICE was adapted into a musical for Broadway and now that spooky musical has made its way to the Fox stage. for a run through Oct. 22.
Audiences should be cautioned that while the musical follows the basics of the Tim Burton movie, the nature of the characters, and the dynamics between them, are very different, making the story more serious and more complicated but less funny. Beetlejuice has a much bigger role, the ghost couple, the Maitlands, a much smaller one, and the focus is shifted to a grieving daughter reconnecting with her father, rather than having a sweet ghost couple becoming supportive surrogate co-parents to the teen girl.
Some basics of the story are the same as in Tim Burton’s movie – ignored teenaged goth girl Lydia and her family move into a large Victorian home in a small rural town that had belonged to a couple recently killed in an accident, the Maitlands. The Maitlands are still there, in the form of ghosts, and want to get the new residents out of their home, especially when they start making major changes to the house. But the Maitlands aren’t very scary ghosts, so they consider hiring an expert – a dead fellow with all the subtlety of a used car salesman – Beetlejuice.
We still get an underworld run by bureaucrats with a motley assortment of recently-deceased waiting to see their caseworker, “sand worms,” the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, sculptures that spring to life and Caribbean music that gets people dancing whether they want to or not. There is still broad comedy and Beetlejuice is still obnoxiously and comically given to the rude and crude.
But there are a lot that is changed – including making Beetlejuice more a main character, and reducing the importance of the Maitlands. Characters are changed in big ways and so are the dynamics between them. In the movie, the story is focused on Lydia and the Maitlands, who bond with her. In the musical, the focus is on Lydia and Beetlejuice, and the Maitlands are more minor characters. The humor in the musical is also more topical, meaning it will have to be updated over time. The changes don’t always work, the musical makes less sense and makes the story more serious but less funny.
Beetlejuice (Justin Collette) is a bigger part of this story, more a main character than just the very-entertaining villain. Beetlejuice opens the show with a song about death (naturally) as we witness the funeral of Lydia’s (Isabella Esler) mother. Yes, in this version, Lydia isn’t just a death-obsessed “goth girl” with a camera who is ignored by her parents, but a teen actually mourning the recent death of her mother, a girl whose grief isn’t being acknowledged by her pre-occupied, career-driven father Charles (Jesse Sharp). Focused on his plan to turn the Maitland’s property into a real estate development, he has hired crystal-using, yoga-obsessed, dim-witted “life coach” Delia (Kate Marilley) to help his daughter move on from her grief.
The cast is strong, whatever the issues one might have with the re-written story, They give the musical their all and their good efforts go a long ways towards smoothing over rough patches and making seeing this production worthwhile.
Beetlejuice is played by a very entertaining, energetic Justin Collette, who is nearly always on stage and delivers all the biting comedy you could want. Also strong is young Isabella Esler, who has great appeal and stage presence, which is all the more impressive because she is making her professional debut and recently graduated high school.
The rest of the cast does the best they can with the more muddled re-written characters. Delia is the character most changed in the musical. In the movie, Delia is Lydia’s stepmother, a comic drama-queen artist who specializes in “scary sculptures,” and is always accompanied by her interior decorator sidekick Otho, comic villains second only to Beetlejuice. The movie’s Delia brushes Lydia aside while demanding to be the center of attention herself.
In the musical, Delia is no longer the self-centered stepmother but a mousy, clueless “life coach” hired by Lydia’s father to help his daughter overcome her grief, apparently so he doesn’t have to do that. Further, Dad and Delia are also having an affair and keeping that secret from Lydia. The movie’s ever-present Otho (Abe Goldfarb) mostly just is talked about in the musical and only shows up in one brief scene, now transformed into Delia’s life-coaching mentor. This Delia tries to be supportive of Lydia but she isn’t very effective. The character’s humor is built around her mangled use of language and her shallow cluelessness, and jokes about her New Age-y interests in crystals and yoga.
The Maitlands are different too. Instead of the sweet, happy, small town couple whose major life regret is that they were childless, they now are people who have dabbled in a lot of things but never did much in life, and now regret that in death. Gone are Adam’s (Will Burton) model train set of the town that he works on so lovingly and Barbara’s (Megan McGinnis) crafting skills, fondness for Laura Ashley’s tiny-flowered wallpaper, and passion for renovating their Victorian home. Those things are replaced by careless tinkering with antique electronics, mismatched old furniture and loud 1990s faux Victorian big-print floral wallpaper. In the movie, Otho replaces the Maitland’s period-appropriate tasteful tiny-flower wallpaper and antique furniture with tasteless, clashing ultra modern decor. In the musical, the opposite happens, as the Maitlands’ tasteless mismatched antiques and loud wallpaper is replaced by a tasteful, cohesive Prairie-style modern decor, sending an opposite message about the Maitlands.
Actually, the Maitlands hardly matter in this story, mostly just serving as links to the underworld and giving Beetlejuice his entry, but Will Burton and Megan McGinnis do all they can to make the characters (ahem) come to life. Kate Marilley has the worst job, trying to make something of this now-ditzy Delia, and she does give it a valiant try. Jesse Sharp has an much easier time of it as dad Charles, and brings nice warmth to the expanded role in later scenes with Esler as his daughter Lydia.
The musical’s new story focuses on the relationship between Lydia and her father, and on Beetlejuice. Beetlejuice is a more complicated character, with more of a backstory and, weirdly, becomes more the one who helps Lydia. He’s no longer just a loud, crude, self-centered dead guy who “doesn’t work well with others” but a more complex demon who has a bad relationship with his mother and who relates to Lydia’s problems.
All those changes mean the story makes much less sense and changes the straight-forward good and evil of the movie to something more complicated, but less funny. However, the show still offers good entertainment, thanks to the cast, and particularly Justin Collette as Beetlejuice.
The songs are alright but not particularly memorable, but they are performed with gusto, again particularly by Justin Collette. His Beetlejuice is hilarious, still rude and crude but with a touch more human humor, His big, bundle of energy performance is a big part of the show’s appeal. The score wisely sticks with the Caribbean flavor the movie had, including the famous Banana Boat song (Day-o) and the dancing that goes with it, a production number highlight of the musical. Staging in well-done, with several of the movie’s fantasy effects recreated to great effect. Really, the musical has all the elements to delight an audience, except for that re-muddled story.
Why writers Michael McDowell and Larry Wilson wanted to so muddle the movie’s story is a mystery but Justin Collette does a lot to salvage the entertainment value of the show. If you love the movie, keep in mind there are changes and let those go, and just go for the entertaining Justin Collette, the Caribbean flavored score and stage recreations of some of Tim Burton fantasy.
“Beetlejuice” is on stage at the Fabulous Fox through Oct. 22.
© Cate Marquis