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Despite headlining, the trickster “bio-exorcist” of Beetlejuice, played by Michael Keaton, appears in only about 20 minutes of the original 1988 Tim Burton black comedy. Sure, the movie has a gleefully nasty streak even before “the ghost with the most” shows up. But it works, because if Keaton’s sleazy ghoul took over the whole film, the story of the sweet-natured Maitlands becoming ghosts and finding a surrogate daughter in the living Lydia Deetz wouldn’t have the same poignant bite.
This is not the approach of Beetlejuice, the musical, directed by Alex Timbers and onstage at the Academy of Music through Sunday, June 11, on a national Broadway tour. Justin Collette, starring as the title character, stomps, sings, smooches, and makes rusty one-liners soar throughout the wearying Broadway adaptation. He’s giving it his all, even if his forced rasp feels like Josh Gad doing a Tom Waits impression. The rest of the cast are belting “Say My Name” and “Day-O (Banana Boat Song)” right alongside him. There’s also no denying the care—and expense—put into David Korins’s massive, ornate production design and Michael Curry’s puppet work. The show is working as hard as possible to keep you in your seat.
Helena Bonham-Carter has claimed ex-husband Tim Burton is on the autism spectrum, which, if true, would be a vicious irony: Beetlejuice is the least autism-friendly musical I’ve ever seen. The lighting scheme by Kenneth Posner trades heavily in loud greens and purples, the songs follow one after another with little room to breathe, and every voice and instrument aims for the rafters at every moment. I was far from wanting more by the time the actors made their final bows—I was just relieved nothing else was coming at me from the stage.
The musical’s book and songs take rather different paths from the original. Adam and Barbara Maitland (played here by Will Burton and Britney Coleman) drive the film’s story and provide a loving, lame ballast to giant sandworms and The Manual For The Recently Deceased. Beetlejuice and Lydia (Isabella Esler) instead become co-protagonists (as in the animated series), which forces the stage show to constantly match the title character’s obnoxious decibel levels. These creators also don’t seem to care about the film’s characterization of the afterlife as the existential horror of an indifferent bureaucracy. More wholesome, crowd-pleasing themes about grief and needing people—Beetlejuice is motivated by loneliness, you see—anchor the characters instead.
These choices sand off the original’s rougher, darker edges and replace them with schmaltz and an intense theater-kid energy that wants to give us severed legs and choreographed possessions, but also indulges in a peppy, almost alarming optimism. Beetlejuice, the film, is about embracing a strange reality even in death, while Beetlejuice, the musical, is about choosing life and confronting your feelings—hardly a fresh narrative in today’s shows and films.
Ultimately, for all the show’s massive bombastic style, the songs and creaky jokes about New Agers simply don’t stick in the head like Burton’s dreamlike, morbid images. Beetlejuice is a relatively low-budget comedy from a filmmaker who simply likes coming up with “the strange and unusual,” but the musical incarnation clearly exists for the ticket price. With little of the original’s mystery or magic, this is an artist’s style and aesthetic sanitized for an audience who’ll still get a dopamine rush from seeing the shrunken-head character. Beetlejuice may be ready for showtime. But this musical isn’t.
What, When, Where
Beetlejuice. Original Score by Eddie Perfect, book by Scott Brown and Anthony King; directed by Alex Timbers. $20-$149. Through June 11, 2023, at Academy of Music, 240 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelculturalcampus.org.
The Academy of Music is a wheelchair-accessible venue, with accessible seating locations available in advance. Visit the Kimmel's accessibility page for more detailed information.
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