By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
There are times when the special effects in Beetlejuice, the latest musical to occupy the historic space at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway, occur at such a dizzying pace, one can only compare them to serotonin and dopamine, the potent chemicals that douse the brain during crack use.
Nominated for a Best Musical Tony Award and based on the Tim Burton-inspired film, it is probably the best translation of cinematic vision to Broadway stage ever undertaken and that includes the other Eddie Perfect massive work currently occupying the Broadway Theatre, King Kong.
This is a show that has enjoyed a long time being meticulously designed and crafted – more than five years – and it is an homage to Tim Burton’s many film offerings rather than just this one film, with “Easter eggs” scattered here and there for fans of his work. Director Alex Timbers, who has twice been nominated for a Tony Award as a director (Peter and the Starcatcher) and a writer (Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson) worked closely with scenic designer David Korins to create what will likely be a shoe-in for a Best Scenic Design Tony. The central focus of the house, for example, undergoes four distinct changes, at times expanding and towering over the audience and later retreating and giving an impression of shrinking.
In addition to Korins’ impressive set and the spectacular costumes by William Ivey Long (Tony nominated), there is a virtual army of specialized designers in support. These include the effective Tony-nominated duo of Kenneth Posner, whose recent lighting design credits include War Paint and Mean Girls, and Peter Hylenski, whose recent sound design credits also include Frozen and King Kong (also Tony nominated). Projection designs by Peter Nigrini (Ain’t Too Proud and Dear Evan Hansen) are linked with puppet designs fashioned by Michael Curry and special effects credited to Jeremy Chernick (Frozen and Aladdin). There’s even a spot for Michael Weber, credited as a magic and illusion designer to add to the potent mix.
This was the last musical of the season to bow in time for consideration for this year’s Tony Awards, so one might ask whether it intentionally opened late to keep it fresh inside of Tony voters’ minds. Or, were there problems that kept it from opening a bit earlier? The fact is that there are so many moving parts in this massive work that it was probably a bit of both.
The two stars of Beetlejuice are Alex Brightman, who plays the wild and very dead titular character (Tony nomination for Leading Actor in a Musical) and Sophia Anne Caruso, who plays Lydia, a goth girl obsessed with death and mourning the loss of her mother. The two are integral to the plot originally seen on film screens in 1988 and starring a frenetic Michael Keaton and a very non-plussed Wynona Ryder.
Brightman, who was last seen in the lead of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s School of Rock, is accustomed to playing larger-than-life characters. In this case he is playing a larger-than-death character, an extremely offensive ghost who is hidden to the world until a living being chants his name three times. Brightman breaks the fourth wall from the very beginning of the show in the number “The Whole Being Dead Thing,” which is reprised twice more in the first 20 minutes.
Brightman’s character voice is almost as jarring as the green and grey makeup he wears and the sky-high pompadour of green and grey hair he sports. As to his singing form, rest assured, it is just fine. Brightman is a brilliant leading actor, who seems to best inhabit characters that are outlandish and over the top. It is not surprising that he is a standout in the majority of the big musical numbers with music and lyrics by Perfect and book by Scott Brown and Anthony King (all nominated for Tony Awards), leading the cast in intricately choreographed scenes by Connor Gallagher.
Act Two’s “That Beautiful Sound” finds Brightman and eight fellow Beetlejuice clones cavorting about the stage along with Caruso, a 17-year-old phenom, who has a presence that is both commanding and startling. As Lydia, Caruso positively owns her riveting performances in Act One’s “Dead Mom” and Act Two’s “Home.” She is so confident in her work that she seems centered and imbued with the kind of self-assuredness that only comes from decades of work on stage. This waif’s voice is so huge and pure one questions how it can emanate from such a small frame. With this production, we are seeing a Broadway star born who is certain to leave a mark for a generation to come.
Kerry Butler and Rob McClure play Barbara and Adam Maitland, the original owners of the house who were lovingly restoring their home when they meet an untimely end. Unearthly bound to their former abode, they are appalled when Lydia’s father and stepmother, Charles and Delia Deetz (Adam Danheisser and Linda Kritzer), move in with the girl and begin garishly reappointing the home. According to the rules spelled out in the “Book of the Recently Departed,” the Maitlands are enjoined to scare Lydia and the other Deetzes away.
Obsessed with death, especially because of her dead mother, Lydia chances upon and reads the book and is thus able to see the pitiful phantasms. Her ability to detect this macabre microcosm makes her a necessary companion to the Maitlands. After all, if Charles and Delia were to leave, then Lydia would also have to go. The problem is that the ghostly couple are invisible to the Deetz family and are so inexperienced in haunting that all they succeed in doing is setting themselves up as curious objects of crass commercialism by the Deetzes.
Trying to fight back as best they can, they are approached by Beetlejuice, a reverse exorcist of sorts, whose job is to rid the house of the humans and leave it for the ghosts to inhabit. While McClure and Butler are seasoned performers with beautiful and expressive voices, they are somewhat underutilized in the work with the exceptions being Act One’s “Ready, Set, Not Yet” and Act Two’s “Maitlands 2.0.”
Since the Maitlands cannot call upon Beetlejuice, it devolves upon Lydia to summon Beetlejuice. To her dismay, it becomes apparent he has designs on her as a wife and how she deals with his pursuit is a major tract of the musical as it finds resolution.
Linda Kritzer excels as Lydia’s stepmother Delia in a duet with Caruso (“No Reason”) and in the Act One closer “Day-O” made famous as an anthem by calypso crooner Harry Belafonte. In this case the music is background for a seance gone mad as the family begins to experience Beetlejuice’s control over their own bodily functions. Kritzer also steals the show as a non-credited green-skinned Miss Argentina leading “What I Now Know,” a huge production number for the ensemble in Act Two.
Nominated for a total of eight different Tony Award categories, this musical with its overall scenic design and great many special effects culminates with the other rousing Harry Belafonte classic “Jump in the Line (Shake Señora).”
Beetlejuice may be the ultimate experience for the virtual gaming generation, many of whom were not even born when the Tim Burton film was originally released. The constant bombarding of the senses with a mechanized set, flashing lights, fantastic puppetry from giant sandworms and the like, sumptuous music arranged and supervised by Perfect and Kris Kukul, and a big, talented cast sets this production apart from the other four Tony nominees for Best Musical.
It is a true immersive experience that is much more than the sum of its kitschy special effects. And as the title character blurts out ominously and effectively “It’s showtime, folks!”
Beetlejuice continues its run at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, in New York City. Based on the Geffen Company picture and it story by Michael McDowell and Larry Wilson, it is directed by Alex Timbers and features music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect and a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King. Showtimes are at 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. evenings with matinees at 2:00 p.m. The show, which runs two and a half hours, is dark on Mondays. For ticket information, click here or call 212-239-6200.