Left to right: Britney Coleman, Will Burton, Isabella Esler and Justin Collette in "Beetlejuice The Musical,." Photo by Matthew Murphy
If the Grinch who appears onstage at the Old Globe every holiday season wore black and white stripes and had permission to spout pointed political commentary and be profane, you’d have Beetlejuice.
This occurred to me while in the audience of the national touring production of “Beetlejuice The Musical” at the Civic Theatre. Not just because both characters are howlingly funny and big – the Grinch bigger than life, Beetlejuice bigger than death – but in each show, the fun lessens when the star is not onstage.
Now it’s true that Michael Keaton, who starred in Tim Burton’s 1988 “Beetlejuice” film, was on screen only 15 minutes or so, but the movie’s spectacular and spooky effects ensured that its momentum was never slowed. In the stage musical written by Eddie Perfect (music and lyrics) with Scott Brown and Anthony King (the book) the Beetlejuice character is definitely more prominent than in the film, but in the second act he takes a back seat to the Lydia character, and little by little this show doesn’t seem that different from so many other Broadway adaptations of hit movies.
I’ll come back to this. First, a ‘lil history.
The “Beetlejuice” musical opened on Broadway in April 2019 and ran almost a year until it was forced to close, like everything else, by the onset of COVID. After a brief return to the Great White Way, this national tour began. Thus, many if not most people are seeing the show for the very first time. They’re seeing it in style too. At the Civic, quite a few folks were clad in various combinations of black and white stripes. This definitely contributed to the party atmosphere in the old downtown theater.
Perfect’s story is similar to but departs in relatively insignificant ways from the original “Beetlejuice” script by Michael McDowell, Warren Skaaren and Larry Wilson. Married couple Adam and Barbara Maitland (Will Burton and Britney Coleman) die together via electrocution in their “dream home” (in the film it’s a car accident) and find themselves on the Other Side. They learn from the dead but not deadpan Beetlejuice (Andrew Kober, who’s alternating in the strenuous part on tour with Justin Collette) that they can “keep” their house by haunting away the new owners: the get-rich-quick Charles Deetz (Jesse Sharp) and his depressed goth daughter Lydia (Isabella Esler).
That’s about it. The two-hours-plus show is otherwise occupied with parading out outlandish supporting characters including Charles’ mistress Delia (Katie Marilley), her guru Otho (Abe Goldfarb) and, in the Nether World, a creepy ensemble of ingeniously costumed dead folks.
As you’d expect “Beetlejuice” the musical, like the film, is mostly about its technologically born visuals. It’s garish, it’s ghoulish, it’s even got a giant sand worm. The all-stars who deserve standing o’s on this tour: William Ivey Long (costume design); David Korins (scenic design); Jeremy Chernick (special effects design), Michael Weber (magic and illusion design), and many others whom I apologize for not mentioning that make this show like an E-ticket ride at Disneyland. (Remember those, boomers?)
The musical score is not what you’d call hit-laden, but there are a number of rousers, such as the opening “The Whole ‘Being Dead’ Thing,” “Fright of Their Lives” and “Say My Name,” all from the first act, and both “What I Know Now” and “Creepy Old Guy” in the second. Yes, “The Banana Boat Song,” so memorable in the movie “Beetlejuice,” is here, and it’s a definite highlight in Act One.
It’s the staging of these songs that define them – kudos to director Alex Timbers and choreographer Connor Gallagher. The ballads, of the power variety and otherwise, are the province of young Esler, a performer beyond her years, though she doesn’t really elevate them above typical Broadway fare.
I’ve learned to live with and endure standard-issue balladry. My only genuine frustration with this production is that so many of the wickedly funny lyrics sung by the Beetlejuice character are lost in the accompanying music or in the sheer speed with which they’re required to be sung. Kluber makes the best of it and he is undeniably physical and funny. I’d like to compare his performance to Collette’s, but this is a red-hot ticket in town so I’m done with “Beetlejuice.”
Without question Esler is asked to carry the load in this production and certainly given her age, she does so with remarkable poise. Burton and Coleman are likable as the Maitlands while Marilley’s Delia is second only to the Beetlejuice character when it comes to comically commanding scenes.
I’ve read that Tim Burton had begun production on a sequel to the original “Beetlejuice” film, with both Keaton and co-star Winona Ryder, who played Lydia, returning. It’s been halted for the time being by the strikes in Hollywood. Seeing “Beetlejuice” the musical reminded me how much I enjoyed the movie those many years ago, and while sequels generally disappoint, especially those that arrive decades later, this one could be promising. As he showed in the otherwise dismal “The Flash,” Keaton has lost nothing off his fastball when it comes to signature characters he’s played (Batman in that case), and he likely would turn a “Beetlejuice 2” into “Showtime!” again.
All this being said, folks who’ve never seen the “Beetlejuice” movie will still enjoy the stage musical and the bio-exorcist showman whose name is on its marquee.
“Beetlejuice The Musical” presented by Broadway San Diego runs through Aug 20 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.