“Beetlejuice” Broadway musical refreshes source material in Denver stop


From the outset of Broadway’s touring “Beetlejuice,” playing through Sept. 17 at the Buell Theatre, audiences must spend some of the goodwill earned by director Tim Burton’s 1988 afterlife comedy.

Unlike the “Pretty Woman” adaptation that visited the Buell a little over a year ago, however, “Beetlejuice” makes good on its circuslike source by thrusting its characters into outrageous, broadly comic situations that succeed on the audacity of their staging and performances. At its grimy heart, it’s screwball showmanship larded with poignant themes, eye-popping visuals and hammy melodies.

Even with its overstuffed libretto and low-reaching songs, “Beetlejuice” honors and expands on its source material, bringing richness to a beloved story about, well, death. As a critic wiser than I once said, Broadway audiences grow more interested in mortality as they age. The fact that the audience at the Sept. 5 opening night looked relatively young and diverse bodes well for the future of this increasingly unaffordable art form. (In other words: Broadway needs more teen goths.)

“Beetlejuice” opens with a young Lydia Deetz (Isabella Esler) standing next to her mother’s coffin, showing the origin of the character’s goth aesthetic and disposition, formerly inhabited by Winona Ryder. She’s now the main character, and in a frenzied fit of fourth-wall breaking, is quickly joined by Beetlejuice (Justin Collette), who’s now our narrator. He arrives to puncture the mood and unfurl a litany of crude, deliriously funny lines that ingratiate us with his take on the character.

Collette ushers in a garish, purple-and-green lighting scheme that complements his vaudevillian salesmanship. His lines are notably profane compared to the film, with quips and class-conscious critiques so rapid-fire and harsh I barely had time to clock them. A charismatic performer is essential for the role, and Collette’s comic timing feels as much smart casting as director Alex Timbers’ snappy hand.

Young, optimistic couple Barbara and Adam Maitland (Megan McGinnis and Will Burton) have just bought an aging country house in Connecticut. But an accident — here an electrocution, switched up from the movie’s drowning — turns them into ghosts. McGinnis and Burton bring peppiness and tragic yearning to their roles, deftly switching between earnest (if necessarily tunnel-visioned) chats and the horror of realizing their situation.

Beetlejuice, a lascivious, wisecracking demon with no scruples and plenty of F-bombs, exploits their confusion as part of a plan to resurrect himself. When the Deetz family takes over the quaint Victorian and Lydia discovers the spectral Maitlands and Beetlejuice, a plan to bring her mother back also starts to form.

Lydia is quietly furious at her father Charles (Jesse Sharp) for never acknowledging his dead wife (she’s referred to only as “dead mom” early on), particularly as he soft-peddles his romance with Delia (Kate Marilley), his life coach and soon-to-be fiancée. The melodramatic Delia is here repurposed from the film’s art dabbler to a witless Instagram influencer tangled in her sales vocabulary.

While Esler plays Lydia safe at first — a necessity of the script — Marilley quickly matches Collette’s Beetlejuice in intensity with flowing, grandiose body language and a pretentious accent that pays tribute to the great Catherine O’Hara’s origin of the character. Each time she grinds against anyone on stage, it’s a shower of sparks.

Justin Collette (center) plays Beetlejuice alongside the touring company of the Broadway musical adaptation. (Matthew Murphy, provided by DCPA)

Despite the number of kids in the audience, this “Beetlejuice” is an unapologetically mature and overtly sexual show. Collette plays the main character as masculinity’s fragile, obnoxious id, impish and glowering in his depravity. But the literal and figurative middle fingers are less nihilism than wounded sarcasm on his part.

By contrast, Burton’s plucky Adam makes the film’s Alec Baldwin performance feel sleepy. He’s contorted, graceful and oblivious all at once, and his performance feels unusual in its commitment. He creates lovely shapes that feel sourced from a New Yorker cartoon, as with the late-show entrance by Delia’s guru, Otho (Abe Goldfarb), who summons an irritating, mustache-twirling buffoon.

The cacophony overwhelms the lyrics at times, burying worthy lines in needle-pushing volume. The third act’s loudness is intense, as when faux-thunder shook the theater so hard the dust in the air seemed to vibrate. This act departs the most from the film, sucking Lydia and her father into the Netherworld and trotting out some fan-service characters in fetching but meaningless numbers.

Sharp, as Lydia’s father, finally realizes what he’s missing in his life, and Esler’s Lydia gets some closure. Esler is at least as confident in her iconic role as Jenna Ortega is as Wednesday in Netflix’s “Addams Family” reboot, and that’s saying something.

Working hard to justify itself over and over again while updating itself for Gen Z, Broadway’s “Beetlejuice” is a zany, old-school romp that flies by with charm and visual delight, re-creating movie spectacle while adding its own tricks. Whether you loved the film or appreciate the in-jokes (“Brigadoon” is not well-treated in the dialogue, nor is Katherine Hepburn), it’s a lusty riot and fitting homage to an icon of supernatural comedy.

If you go

“Beetlejuice”: Touring Broadway musical adaptation of the 1988 Tim Burton film. Running through Sept. 17 at the Buell Theatre, 1350 Curtis St. in Denver. Tickets: $60-$155. 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org/tickets-events/beetlejuice

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