Review: BEETLEJUICE at Blumenthal PAC
By Perry Tannenbaum
Prepare yourself for an onslaught of ghoulish purple – and wicked green! The Broadway Lights series was fiendishly lighting up Belk Theater for its first opening night there in 2023. No less than 29 purple and green spotlights are arrayed around the proscenium, the box seats, and the balcony. Some of them swivel and sweep around the hall like a bat signal, periodically slapping you between the eyes and blinding you. Twenty more LED arrays – guess what colors! – frame the stage, blinking ominously.
Organ music broods in the background, its Gothic drone abruptly halting for the BIG BANGS, two mighty jump scares that launch each of the two acts of Beetlejuice The Musical. Meanwhile, your helpful Encore playbill sports a different design scheme on its cover: black and white. Not a biggie, true, but lurking all around you, dressed in cosplay creations, are human echoes of the demonic Betelgeuse and his most famed and formal prison-striped suit. Complementing these parolees, waifs of all ages were sporting all-black ensembles such as those favored by Lydia Deetz, the title groom’s funereal bride-to-be.
Yes, I’d say somewhere around 10% of the Belk crowd on opening night were not merely pre-sold on the infernal nectar of Beetlejuice but also eager to proclaim their membership in its cult following. Scott Brown and Anthony King knew their audience well when they overhauled the 1988 screenplay that director Tim Burton wildly accessorized.
Both the Betelgeuse role played by Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder’s Lydia have been hugely enlarged. Instead of standing in the wings (or camping underground), on-call until Barbara and Adam Maitland die and become desperate ghosts, Beetlejuice is our emcee, ingratiating himself with the audience moments after the curtain rises with a steady stream of shticks, topical references, wisecracks, and personal insults flung out to the audience. Or Justin Collette tries – oh so hard in his makeover of the Keaton portrayal, ululating his tongue when all else fails.
That obnoxious appeal can be hard to sustain when the meddlesome Bee is invisibly urging the wholesome and liberal Maitlands to electrocute themselves. Don’t remember that from the movie? Brown and King keep all their action indoors – or on the haunted house’s roof – after the opening funeral scene.
You won’t see that scene in the movie, either. Here the graveyard scene begins to layer on new grieving and suicidal dimensions to Lydia’s familiar goth couture, establishing a new gravitas for the troubled teen. In the wake of Mamma Emily Deetz’s death, Lydia also acquires a seething Hamlet-like bitterness as she, Daddy Deetz, and his wanton fiancée Delia move into the Maitlands’ quaint country home. The sequence of events is painfully compressed here, and Lydia isn’t merely plagued by a goofy, artsy stepmother.
Since they haven’t tied the knot anymore, this is more of a betrayal and an abandonment by Daddy Charles and an opportunistic intrusion by Delia. Of course, this is a gift to Isabella Esler, who gets more of the spotlight here as Lydia and has more substantial woes to bewail in her interactions with the friendly Maitlands – more angst and yearning to belt in the punk ballads written by Eddie Perfect, most notably “Home” and “Dead Mom.”
Grievance and energy have noticeably shifted away from the rookie Maitland ghosts, played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis in the film. Picking up on the opening shots of Baldwin, where Adam meticulously picks up an invading spider and liberates it through his attic window, Perfect expands the Maitlands’ bleeding-heart reverence for life to the point of absurdity, demonstrating in “Fright of Their Lives” that they wouldn’t hurt a fly, much less haunt a house.
That’s likely Perfect’s best lyric, proving that the Maitlands are the neediest of the needy for Betelgeuse’s services as a “bio-exorcist.” Britney Coleman and Will Burton are so successful at convincing us of their air-headed ineffectuality that even devout Beetlejuice fans will be hard-pressed to care about whether they ever achieve their ghostly aspirations. Saving Lydia from herself and ridding the home of B-Juice become the top priorities.
Not that the elder Deetzes are any more repellent than their celluloid counterparts. Jesse Sharp actually projects a Raymond Burr-ish respectability as Daddy Charles, but even as Kate Marilley outshines him as Delia, getting her teeth into a couple of new songs, she’s no less kookie than Catherine O’Hara was, just oddly more salacious as she swaps professions, becoming a cliché-spouting life coach instead of a sculptress.
With the diminished importance of the Maitlands and the constant pesky presence of Collette as Beetlejuice, further detaching our involvement with the story by breaking the fourth wall over and over, this horror-themed musical comedy might devolve into irredeemable silliness. Certainly, Perfect’s score doesn’t help Brown and King’s update.
Design to the rescue! However you might react to the film’s storytelling, which also implicated Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett in cameo visits, Burton’s comedy-horror stew was a visual wow, with touches of Disney, Dali, Hitchcock, and Edward Gorey. Onstage at Belk Theater, we behold an orgy of scenic, costume, lighting, makeup, wig, and projection design – augmented by magic, SFX, a special illuminated edition of The Handbook for the Recently Deceased, and puppets. Fear not, the pinhead guy we encountered in Tim Burton’s netherworld has not been left behind.
Although we must tolerate the tasteless intrusion of an NPR tote bag, we still get the zany “Day-O” possession via Harry Belafonte, our colossal man-eating sandworm, and a free consultation with Juno in hell, featuring a surprisingly frumpy Karmine Alers in the role previously graced by Sylvia Sidney onscreen. While we’re down there, we get to see how Beetlejuice The Musical producers added fresh Carmen Miranda spice to the 2022 Broadway remount of their COVID-stunted 2018 gumbo, when they upsized the role of Miss Argentina, now shaken and shimmied by Danielle Marie Gonzalez.
Miss Argentina’s skimpy attire, one of local legend William Ivey Long’s many bizarre and resourceful creations, cues a startling alteration in the overall color scheme. Wicked and Emerald City may be eternally green, but once Lydia returns from the realm of the dead, there are startling infusions of fiery red into the décor, including the spectacularly gauche formalwear that Beetlejuice and Miss Deetz sport for their nuptials.
It all added up to complete delight for pre-sold Tim Burton worshipers, whose enthusiasm after the calypso finale tallied even higher dB readings than those jump scares. All was foreseen by the wizards of Blumenthal Performing Arts, who announced the return of Beetlejuice – for the Christmas vacation! – the morning after opening night.