Washington, DC’s National Theatre has once again been blessed with a new pre-Broadway run, and it is a whole world away from the high school shenanigans of last year’s “Mean Girls.” This year’s musical adaptation of Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” is just in time for the 1988 film’s 30th anniversary. With music and lyrics by Australian comedian and singer-songwriter Eddie Perfect (“Shane Warne, “King Kong”), “Beetlejuice” is an outrageously hilarious spectacle that balances the macabre with the comedic. The cast and crew have brought forth a production that would make Burton and his original cohorts proud.
Here we have a cast that could not have been better assembled, since they fit their respective roles like a glove… or in this case, like a corpse in a hearse! In the title role is Alex Brightman, who is best known for his Tony-nominated performance as Dewey Finn in “School of Rock.” His embodiment of Beetlejuice would make even Michael Keaton shudder. Brightman’s portrayal of the shameless, sailor-mouthed miscreant is complete with spot-on accents and a devilishly convincing comical timing. Brightman’s consistently raspy voice throughout the show is proof that the man has vocal cords of steel, and his performance is a must-watch for Tony voters. Alongside him playing Lydia is Sophia Anne Caruso (“The Sound of Music Live!”, “Lazarus”). Whereas Winona Ryder’s Lydia is low-key and subtle, Caruso’s Lydia has more attitude. Lydia grieves over her mother’s death and barely tolerates her selfish, oblivious father, and Caruso nails the angst needed for the self-proclaimed “strange and unusual” goth teenager.
Vocally, Caruso has a solid belting register that is far beyond her 17 years. Her first big solo number “Dead Mom” is a midtempo rock number in the vein of Paramore, and I can easily see Caruso fronting her own future band if she chooses to do so. Other standouts in the cast include Broadway veteran Kerry Butler (“Catch Me If You Can,” “Mean Girls”) and Rob McClure (“Chaplin”) as the adorkable recently deceased couple Barbara and Adam Maitland. Leslie Kritzer (“Legally Blonde”), who plays Delia, Lydia’s soon-to-be stepmother and life coach, is an absolute riot, as is her co-star Adam Dannheisser (“Oslo”), who plays Lydia’s father, Charles. Also noteworthy is Kelvin Moon Loh (“The King and I” 2015 Revival) as Delia’s ethereal guru Otho. Although a minor character, it would be remiss not to applaud Dana Steingold’s brief but screamingly funny performance as an innocent, easily scared Girl Scout in the second act.
One of the show’s most significant assets is its spectacular set, costume, and lighting design. The production is complete with animatronic sandworms and shrimp-arms, not to mention at least five different backgrounds throughout the course of the show. The set’s gothic aesthetic is spot-on with Tim Burton’s style from the movie, and its immaculate versatility is something that I hope Tony voters remember come spring. Moreover, the costumes are nearly exact replicas of the movie ones (e.g., Beetlejuice’s striped suit and Lydia’s red wedding dress). In classic Broadway fashion, the costume changes in numbers such as “Creepy Old Guy” are swift and stunning. Elsewhere, the lighting design strikes gothic gold. Before the curtain rises, it is covered with a beaming spiral, as if to hypnotize the audience into a world far beyond our darkest fears. Perhaps my favorite use of the lighting is how minimal it is in the netherworld scenes, heightening the Tim Burton-like desolation of the next world. The crew has crafted a flexible set that turns the seemingly impossible into a reality.
Meanwhile, the writing is sensational. Like last year’s production of “Mean Girls,” the book here is not just a total copy-and-paste of the movie to the stage. The book writers Scott Brown and Anthony King (both “Gutenberg! The Musical”) have expanded character backstories. For example, the musical opens with Beetlejuice wreaking havoc in a graveyard shortly before cutting to the funeral for Lydia’s mother. Some plot details have changed, however, such as how Barbara and Adam die in the story’s beginning. A car driving off a bridge, like in the movie, here turns into the couple falling through the floor in their house. With the dialogue, Brown and King have upped the ante on the humor. The script is replete with explosive jokes and lyrics that tip-toe between knee-slapping and just plain wrong (“There are misogynistic guys here/Someday you’re gonna die here/It’s basically Dubai here”). Musically, Eddie Perfect lives up to his surname with his lively rock/swing hybrid score that enhances the brash dark humor throughout the story. The score hits the ground running with the uptempo opening number “The Whole Being Dead Thing.” Other highlights throughout the show include “That Beautiful Sound,” “Creepy Old Guy,” and “Everything Is Meh.” The latter number features another delightful addition to the story: the fictional boy band Boy Inferno, which greets people upon entering the netherworld. Furthermore, fans of the movie will be relieved to know that the two Harry Belafonte songs used in the movie’s iconic dinner scene and finale scene are recycled for the stage version.
The show is already a hit among audiences, with many patrons arriving on opening night in full gothic makeup, dyed hair, and costumes. Ticket-wise, some performances are already down to single tickets in certain sections. Overall, I hope the show is not altered too much when it transfers to New York in the spring. There are already several strong aspects, and I hope that all the aforementioned musical numbers stay intact. As the DC production is currently the only incarnation of the musical, it is hard for me to imagine a better cast than the current one. I do hope though that Otho’s character is expanded. I know his Act II appearance is brief, but I feel that there is much comedic potential to explore with him. Regardless of how the final version manifests, “Beetlejuice” is already a hit of demonic proportions!
WARNING: Contains strong language, suggestive content, and strobe light effects. Not recommended for children under 15.
“Beetlejuice” plays at DC’s National Theatre through November 18th. Get your tickets HERE