“Such a bold departure from the original source material!” wisecracks the odd-looking fellow sitting on a coffin at the start of the Broadway musical “Beetlejuice.” The weird, nasty and outrageous title character is talking about a short lament just sung by a sad teen at her mother’s gravesite, as he breaks the fourth wall (“Holy crap! A ballad already?”) — and the show breaks from the iconic 1988 Tim Burton film comedy on which it is based.
The retooling done since its out-of-town tryout in D.C. — along with a host of others plot twists and character tweaks — gives the latest film-to-musical adaptation fresh snap, surprises and (gasp!) even heart. Sure, the narrative becomes a bit of a cluster-muck in the second act — but mostly it’s just screamingly good fun.
Unlike the film, in which the title character doesn’t appear until much later in the story and has relatively little screen time, here he’s front and center. But he’s no imperious god from “Hadestown” or philosophizing corpse-handler from “Gary.” In the role that Michael Keaton originated in the film, Alex Brightman (“School of Rock”) plays him like a raspy vaudevillian on crack: frenzied, shameless, audience-aware and very funny as the living/dead embodiment of the uncensored id, while celebrating from the get-go what the show is about: Death. And more death. Laughing yet?
It might depend on your taste for black humor, Marxian (as in Groucho) anarchy and crude jokes — but some witty ones, too. It’s also a call to embrace life while we have it. As one of Eddie Perfect’s over-the-top lyrics goes: “We shoulda carpe’d way more diems/Now we’re never gonna see ’em.”)
Book writers Scott Brown and Anthony King and director Alex Timbers make the show more than the film’s cynical goth fantasia, creating themes and characters — a few anyway — worth caring about, without losing any of the movie’s outrageousness or visual pizazz. Dead center is sad teen Lydia (Sophia Anne Caruso), played in the film by Winona Ryder. Lydia feels lonely and lost since her mother’s passing, but her father Charles (Adam Dannheisser) just wants to move on, taking up with flakey lifecoach Delia (Leslie Kritzer, hysterical).
Dad, a developer, is buying the home of recently deceased couple Barbara (Kerry Butler) and Adam (Rob McClure), followers of the latest trends who never stepped out of their comfort zone when they were alive. Beetlejuice enlists this newly dead — but not fully gone — couple to scare one of these new arrivals into saying his name three times, the result being — well, no spoilers here.
But Lydia — who can see these spirits because she feels invisible, too — doesn’t scare easily, bonds with the nice dead couple and eschews the creepy guy in stripes. That is, until she finally need his demonic touch.
Then things get complicated, as the dimension of the living mingles with dimension of the dead — that is, the Netherworld, where Lydia goes in search for dead Mom and comes across shrunken heads, sand worms and the late great Miss Argentina (Kritzer, scoring again in a second role).
The plotting eventually goes completely off the rails, but keeping things entertaining enough are the off-the-wall humor, endless visuals and aural delights, tuneful music and wicked lyrics of Perfect, who redeems himself here after his boilerplate score for “King Kong.”
Inspired by Burton’s aesthetics, set designer David Korins’ house on the hill becomes a fantastic, ever-morphing character unto itself, while William Ivey Long’s costumes could headline Mexico’s Dia de Los Muertos parade. Kenneth Posner’s lightning and Peter Hylenski’s sound designs, as well as puppets, magic and special effects, all contribute to an overall eye and ear-popping experience. (Oddly Burton isn’t in the musical’s formal credits, but receives a separate thanks in the program.)
Brightman is matched in star presence and musical chops by Caruso, as she travels to hell and back without losing her way. McLure and Butler find big laughs, too, as the sweet — but not too sweet — couple who finally find a reason to live after they’ve died. Dannheiser, as Lydia’a dad, grounds the role with sincerity without forgoing the loopy side, too.
Cast members Jill Abramovitz, Kelvin Moon Loh and Danny Rutigliano all have their comic moments, too, and after a memorable appearance by Dana Steingold, you may never look at a Girl Scout at your door in the same way.