The Broadway musical has long come back from the dead — the 1980s doldrums in which the vacuum was filled by British imports, starting with Cats which ran for nearly 18 years at the Winter Garden Theatre. But for Broadway's latest behemoth, the stage of the same theatre is now joyfully populated with the living dead.
This is not the first time that this theatre has had a haunting: the original production of Sondheim and Goldman's Follies here in 1971 was full of ghosts of its characters' younger selves; it may well be one of the most articulate and moving musicals ever written about the reflective pains of growing older, and realising the mistakes you've made along the way.
Of course Beetlejuice doesn't detain itself with anything quite so serious or searching. But just as Cats dealt with an imminent afterlife, as it revolved around which of them would ascend to the 'heaviside layer', so Beetlejuice is about how mortality may not quite be the end but the start of another adventure.
Here suburban couple Adam and Barbara (played with gentle unassertiveness by the charming coupling of Rob McClure and Kerry Butler) find themselves having a literal out-of-body experience when they suddenly fall through the floorboards of their home -- and realise that they have, in fact, died. But the antic, anarchic figure of Beetlejuice is on hand to guide them into the next world -- or at least help them to reclaim their current existence when new owners buy their house, with extensive plans to remodel it as an investment opportunity.
Alex Brightman, who previously opened Andrew Lloyd Webber's School of Rock at this address playing an unqualified supply schoolteacher who teaches his students rock music, plays another disruptive force here in the title role with gleeful abandon (and hair that looks like its been plugged into an electrical socket).
Early on in the proceedings, he warns the audience: "If you die during the performance, it will not stop." That's possibly because no one will actually notice: they'll be laughing too hard to do so. Later he threatens to walk out on the show -- and warns us we'd be stuck with Adam and Barbara. "Yeah they’re boring. Even more boring than Brigadoon. I’ll say it: Fuck Brigadoon."
Ouch! It might not be the best tactic to come to Broadway with a new musical that so flagrantly disses a legendary 1947 classic that got there long before you did. But secretly, I laughed; this is a new generation of theatre makers blowing raspberries at the past. And let's not be too sanctimonious about it: it's part of the show's playful subversiveness to do so, just as The Book of Mormon did, too.
In fact Beetlejuice is part of that meta-tradition of shows from The Producers to this season's The Prom that comment on themselves even as they simultaneously send up and celebrate the traditions they've sprung from.
Here, a creative team that includes director Alex Timbers and his inspired designers David Korins (sets) and William Ivey Long (costumes), animate this parade of eccentricity with flair and great comedy technique that turns it into a subversive delight.
The score by Eddie Perfect -- who also provided songs for this season's King Kong -- is full of wit and grit, and Scott Brown and Anthony King's book propels it forward smartly. There are also hilarious performances from Leslie Kritzer and Sophia Anne Caruso as the mistress and daughter respectively of the house's new buyer Charles (Adam Dannheisser).
Beetlejuice is the last new show to open this season -- but could be haunting Broadway for a long while.
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)
"The dead lead lives of noisy desperation in Beetlejuice, the absolutely exhausting new musical that opened on Thursday at the Winter Garden Theater. This frantic adaptation of Tim Burton's much-loved 1988 film is sure to dishearten those who like to think of the afterlife as one unending, undisturbed sleep. Because as directed by a feverishly inventive Alex Timbers, and starring Alex Brightman as the manic ghoul of the title, this production proposes that not being alive just means that you have to try harder — a whole lot harder — than you ever did before. Otherwise, you’ll wind up invisible, with nary a soul to acknowledge your starry self. And in today’s world of chronic self-advertising, this may be the true fate worse than death."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Whatever else it may or may not be, Beetlejuice is spectacularly weird. The best creative work in this musical adaptation of Tim Burton’s 1988 film—about a pair of sweet ghosts trying to rid their house of its distasteful new inhabitants—has gone into its physical form: The designers come at it from all kinds of crazy angles. David Korins’s haunted-house set seems to buckle in the middle and stretch at the edges; William Ivey Long’s costumes are a batty vision of colors and patterns at war. There are magic tricks and giant worms and a starkly linear idea of the afterlife that contrasts well with the chaotic world of the living."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"If you're a fan of the film, take note - they messed with the plot. The vibe's the same though. Beetlejuice on Broadway bombards you with manic energy and Alex Brightman, leading a boffo cast certainly fills the bill. But if it seems like the show goes overboard, beating us to death with antic irreverence, well, that just may be the plan."
Roma Torre for NY1
"Writers Scott Brown and Anthony King, along with composer Eddie Perfect and director Alex Timbers, approach the 1988 Tim Burton cult comedy with the giddy excitement of rabid fanboys in their imaginative musical adaptation of Beetlejuice. That enthusiasm translates to the audience, too, with every visual reference lifted directly from the movie yielding huge laughs. The show is a loving homage to a wonderfully weird original, reconceived for the stage with eye-popping design, full-throttle performances and a mischievous sense of fun that literally seems to drip from the Winter Garden Theatre's chandeliers, tinged a ghoulish green for the occasion."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"High-spirited fun, wickedly good tunes and eye-popping visuals make this night of the living dead a scream."
Frank Rizzo for Variety