The Haunted Mansion vibe is on full blast at the Winter Garden, where spooky-carnival pre-show music plays while chartreuse searchlights semi-periodically blind you on your way to your seat and theater staff hawk “It’s showtime!” T-shirts and booze in recognizably striped sippy cups. My usher was sporting a neon-green manicure complete with black-and-white accent nails on each ring finger. (That’s commitment.) Beetlejuice, the rowdy, raunchy musical adapted from Tim Burton’s 1988 horror-comedy, openly embraces the theme park-y aspects of an enterprise like the one it’s engaged in. True to its source material, it’s loud, it’s cheeky, and it’s all about excess. It’s also — thanks in large part to Alex Brightman’s spot-on performance as the incorrigible titular ghoul — a pretty fun time.
“Wait a minute,” you may be saying, “Didn’t you just write about putting a moratorium on male-centric musicals made out of male-centric 1980s films?” Yes. But my issue with so many projects that fall into that category is with the effortful, hypocritical way they tend to shove fundamentally backwards stories into progressive, even preachy modern containers. Beetlejuice is too rude, too gleefully irreverent to preach, and its book by Scott Brown (one of my predecessors in this job) and Anthony King manages for the most part simply to live in its moment rather than protesting too much about it. It’s a cartoon, but a decently smart one, and while the demon at its center is still as brazen and bawdy as ever, he’s an equal opportunity creeper (whose creepiness is even delightfully sent up in the show’s penultimate song, “Creepy Old Guy”). He’s just as likely to plant a sloppy, Bugs Bunny-esque kiss on the square Connecticut-dwelling hobbyist Adam Maitland (Rob McClure) as on his wife Barbara (Kerry Butler). Pure mischief doesn’t discriminate, and it doesn’t give a flying fandango.
As in the movie, the Maitlands shuffle off their mortal coil early in the action (though this time, without a car). They’re a loving, sheltered couple who didn’t really do much living before dying in an accident in their bourgois New England home, where, as ghosts, they soon encounter the restless demon Beetlejuice (Brightman). “Yeah, you seem like nice guys / A little on the Pottery Barn–and–dry white wine side,” the wiseass ghoul decides. He’s looking for a way to be noticed, to wreak some real havoc in the world of the living (“I’m invisible. Powerless. Like a gay Republican,” he laments as the show begins), and he’ll use both the dead Maitlands and the living family that’s moving into their house — Charles Deetz (Adam Dannheisser) and his kindergoth daughter, Lydia (Sophia Anne Caruso) — to achieve his ends.
The themes in Beetlejuice are about as complex as in most animated Disney movies: being a misfit, trying to be “seen,” dealing with loss, looking for home, etc. But, as Beetlejuice himself might say, “Blah blah blah, Jesus.” The truth is we’re not here for the sweet stuff; we’re here for the mayhem, and the show is at its best when the growling, grinning Brightman is onstage. The theater might actually be an even better milieu for the character than film (though if the movie were made these days, he’d probably be talking to us through the screen à la Deadpool). Beetlejuice is a natural emcee and he needs a crowd, and Brightman has maniacal, Barnum-like energy bursting from all his (sometimes too many) stripey limbs. “Don’t be freaked,” he sings, “I do this bullshit, like, eight times a week!” Considering the character’s signature gravelly voice — which he grabs from Michael Keaton while adding plenty of his own wacky panache — that really is a technical feat. Brightman’s a wickedly entertaining force of chaos, whether he’s snorting coke off his sleeve, pulling Dolly Levi’s business card out of his pocket, or earnestly offering Lydia a “Welcome to the Afterlife” satchel emblazoned with the NPR logo. (Her: “National Public Radio?” Him: “That’s where tote bags come from.”)
Brown and King seem to be having the most fun with him, as does Eddie Perfect, whose power-poppy score and impish, up-to-the-minute lyrics are much better suited to Beetlejuice than to the lumpishly epic King Kong. As in that musical, though, Perfect doesn’t exactly write distinctive tunes. His songs have energy, but they quickly bleed together, almost every one of them ending with a fist-in-the-air button. The surly, squirrely Lydia’s got to carry a lot of these, and though she’s got a huge, pliable voice, the 17-year-old Caruso feels opaque and a little stiff in the role. The musical is supposed to have twin engines, Beetlejuice and Lydia, but only the first is fully firing. Caruso belts and sulks (the character is mourning her recently deceased mother, and Caruso also has to muscle her way through perhaps the musical’s least enjoyable song: “Dead Mom”), but she doesn’t quite open up — or even, really, seem like as much of a weirdo as she’s supposed to be — and the play tends to lose steam when we’ve got to spend too long without Beetlejuice himself on stage.
It’s the elastic-faced, mega-voiced Leslie Kritzer as Delia — a kooky life coach Charles has hired to help Lydia through her grieving process (and whom he’s also sleeping with) — who becomes Brightman’s true counterpart in terms of charisma and sheer bizarritude. Taking on any role once played by the superhuman Catherine O’Hara is no joke, and Kritzer is up to the task. The play isn’t always sure where it wants to land in terms of the utter cartoonishness of its living characters, but when it lets Kritzer go full nutso (as in the musical’s solidly ridiculous take on the “Day-O” dinner scene) or full parody-Broadway (as in “What I Know Now,” a tango-y Netherworld showstopper where she doubles as a dead Miss Argentina), it feels most on the mark.
You can only go big and blaring for so long, and, like the character himself in the Maitland/Deetz household, Beetlejuice does overstay its welcome. The brassy finishes of its final third quickly get repetitive, and the sentimental story moments don’t really land so much as they make you yearn, a little guiltily, for a fast forward. Director Alex Timbers and his designers — who are all riffing merrily on Burton’s unmistakable aesthetic; stripes and spirals and sandworms, oh my! — shine brightest when they don’t have to worry about being earnest, when they can, just like their demonic hero, commit to showtime.
Beetlejuice is at the Winter Garden Theatre.