The North American tour of Beetlejuice, the musical, now playing at the Pantages Theatre through only July 30th, is exactly the kind of darkly off-the-wall and outlandish piquancy that theatre aficionados and simply fans of Beetlejuice have been hankering for. The combination of Eddie Perfect’s hair-raisingly exhilarating music and lyrics, Scott Brown and Anthony King’s spookily clever dialogue, an ultra-committed cast who seemingly do it all, and stunning technical designs have amounted to an enterprisingly lively spectacle that is brazen, brash, and refreshingly unapologetic in its excitable execution of the 1988, Tim Burton-helmed source material. And like the film, the musical unearths heartfelt helpings of sentimentality behind the rapid-fire, ghoulish horseplay.
Unlike Michael Keaton’s sparse screentime in the motion picture, the divertingly eccentric musical, which was nominated for eight Tony Awards, has three extra helpings of its titular and clearly most popular character: Beetlejuice. He is just dying to get noticed and is otherwise invisible to the living until they utter his name thrice in succession.
The conniving BJ relishes an opportunity when uber-normal married couple Adam and Barbara Maitland unexpectedly pass away inside their Connecticut home (their cause of death does not involve falling through floorboards like in the Broadway version), only to see their abode distressingly re-occupied by the new owners, the Deetzes: a teenaged Lydia, who feels hopelessly lost since losing her mother, her in-denial dad Charles who wants to model the home as a pitch for a gated community, and the kooky Delia, a hired alternative life-coach for Lydia/lover to Charles. By playing the Maitlands against the Deetzes (minus the agreeable Lydia) and enticing Lydia to get back at her dad, the snookering, black-and-white striped Beetlejuice cons his way into being seen among the living, but to be truly “alive” and unfettered, he must take a particularly creepy route, which opens a literal door to a Netherworld that has been lurking heretofore.
Director Alex Timbers gives his performers the freedom to go appropriately ham in their characterizations, artfully stretching the limits of real life, as a surreal fantasy takes firm hold. Choreographer Connor Gallagher successfully juggles the endless dances, movements, and transitions onstage, congealed into a delightfully frenzied pace that is satisfyingly coherent. This is emphasized by Kris Kukul’s musical supervision, Andy Grobengieser’s musical direction, and a pit band who, with their razor-intentional instrumentation, bookend every number with a bang, making Beetlejuice feel like a bona fide event.
And what an extravaganza it is, led by its green-haired, mischief-making, and gravelly-voiced rascal with the wit of a wizard. Justin Collette, an actor with a history of sketch comedy and improv, maximizes his skills to the hilt as a highly impertinent Beetlejuice powered by a Tony Montana-approved mountain of cocaine, taking the audience on the most stimulating of roller coasters, taking off with “The Whole ‘Being Dead’ Thing.” The hysterical meets hysteria in an inflectional self-aware, fourth wall-breaking, pop culture-steeped, curse-word chucking, banjo-strumming bulldozer of a performance where audience members are teased and find themselves guffawing amidst tidal waves of euphoria. The scorching one-liners, gags, jokes, both innocent (e.g., a Golden Age musical is derisively slammed) and ribald in nature (an abrupt lap dance and a bit about guacamole are uproarious), with callbacks, and more, comprise a riotous masterpiece by Collette.
Isabella Esler etches her name in theatrical lore in a stunning professional debut as the death-obsessed, gothic Lydia who is in disbelief that her dad Charles, portrayed with terrific comic dexterity by Jesse Sharp, has moved on so quickly from his wife’s death. Similar to Winona Ryder in the movie, Esler has such a strong presence, even when she’s playing it straight vis-à-vis Collette’s Beetlejuice. When it’s time to emote via song, Esler is soul-stirring in “Dead Mom” and “Home,” exhibiting a preternatural vocal control and confidence that seizes the observer.
The Eastern medicine-fixated, pink dress-adorned Delia, played by Kate Marilley, who struggles to understand Lydia, is impeccable in an awkwardness marked by exaggeratedly sinewy non-verbal gestures and made-up aphorisms (e.g., “sadness is like a third nipple…”) uttered with a bizarre gusto. The offbeat Delia seemingly tries to convince herself of her worthiness in order to counter her low self-esteem — an internal-crisis character trait which Marilley accentuates for laughs while earning the audience’s empathy. Delia’s influential guru, Otho, who sports a Fabio-esque mane, is like Delia but even more humorously hyperbolic thanks to Abe Goldfarb who channels Will Ferrell with a spindly zaniness and a pronunciation of “Prius” that rings out with the utmost profundity.
The neurotically staid Adam and Barbara, who look like they “run a struggling coffee shop,” are realized by Will Burton and Britney Coleman who make their written-to-be boring, straitlaced coupling quite entertaining. As a duo who wanted to start a family before an unfortunate accident, the attic-stowed characters, who are kept in the dark about page one of The Handbook of the Recently Deceased, are endearing as “helpless” intimidators from the standpoint of the scheming Beetlejuice before trying to reclaim their collective power in “Barbara 2.0.”
In a show where the table is set so splendidly by its principals, the auxiliary characters are able to facilely share in the wealth of exuberance. For instance, Skye, the girl scout with congenital heart disease — effortlessly carried out by Jackera Davis — gets Act II off to a rollicking start with a sung-out-loud internal monologue. Likewise, investor Maxie Dean (effected with clear intent by Brian Vaughn) makes an impression as an opportunist who is extraordinarily content with his brain-damaged wife Maxine (Kris Roberts) who garners a rousing reaction with her peculiarly lip-fluttering cackle. The absurdly talented Roberts, moreover, doubles as Juno, a long-in-the-tooth, walker-dependent, emphysema-riddled walking ad for quitting smoking — a virtual cartoon character, if you will — whose temper would give the devil pause. Danielle Marie Gonzalez’s Miss Argentina, too, a role that has gone viral on TikTok, glows in her red dress and impresses with a saucy Spanish accent, predilection for partying, and activates goosebumps with her vibrato in “What I Know Now.”
Beetlejuice takes the “go big or go home” maxim to a different plane of reality, which is hammered home by an incredible design team whose proficiencies interweave to produce this phenomenal reverie around the leads and especially a not-to-be-overlooked ensemble. David Korins’ scenic design (e.g., the initial funeral scene, the distinct looks of the home, the Netherworld, and the “Life or Death” game show), William Ivey Long’s eclectic costumes, Charles G. LaPointe’s hair and wigs (none more standout than Mr. Juice’s unbudging ‘do), Joe Dulude II’s gothic-inspired makeup, Peter Hylenski’s echoes-from-the-underworld sound design, Michael Curry’s puppet creations (watch out for the gargantuan sandworm!), Jeremy Chernick’s special effects (e.g., bright fireballs and materializing doors), Michael Weber’s misdirection-assisted illusions (e.g., the sudden appearance of quirky props), Peter Nigrini’s batty projections, and Kenneth Posner’s gorgeous purple, green, red, and sometimes spasmodic lighting contribute to a whirlwind pageantry. They also outline a company who contort themselves as they become possessed with the Rastafarian spirit in “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” sing as an enlivened church choir, stare in a hilarious stupor as skeletons, and become Beetlejuice clones who run amok.
Full disclosure: The characters in Beetlejuice might not be as nuanced as the ones in the oft-compared film/musical, The Addams Family. Not to mention, some of the contemporaneous references may age out when a revival is beckoned. But that’s okay, because Beetlejuice has been conceived for a divergent purpose; that is, to function as a take-no-prisoners comedy roast emceed by its eponymous protagonist who melds the scripted with a candid extemporaneousness in a way that elicits the audience’s investment as they become temporarily liberated from the mundane. The musical is exhilaratingly high-octane, adeptly managing to avoid engulfing into flames, despite going to hell and back. Better yet, it’s diabolically rib-tickling inasmuch you might laugh so hard you’ll spontaneously combust; after all, it is “a show about death!”
For more information on Beetlejuice at the Pantages Theatre (through Sunday, July 30th), and to purchase tickets, please visit broadwayinhollywood.com. Beetlejuice can also be experienced in 2024 at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa where it will run from April 16th through the 28th. For further details on that, visit scfta.org.