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Theatre in Review: Beetlejuice (Winter Garden Theatre)

Sophia Anne Caruso, Rob McClure, Kerry Butler. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

For a show in which half the cast of characters is dead, Beetlejuice is, to an alarming degree, hell-bent on being lively: It's an aggressive, jack-in-the-box package loaded with loud music, blaring colors, distorted angles, blinder cues, and frat-house jokes, the last hurled over the footlights with the regularity of products off an assembly line. An enormous amount of effort has gone into styling an entertainment that captures the distinctive gothic-comic sensibility of Tim Burton's early cinematic output. Characters float in midair, ghouls pop out of the orchestra pit, and giant worms emerge from the wings, swallowing up stray members of the supporting cast. The set designer, David Korins, delivers several versions of the same forced-perspective Connecticut house interior, amusingly rendered in ever-more-garish decor; Peter Nigrini's projections deploy flocks of birds, colonies of bats, and intrusions of cockroaches all over the place. Kenneth Posner's lighting covers the stage with saturated ballyhoos and black light effects. William Ivey Long's costumes opt in every case for exaggerated silhouettes, extra layers of ruffles, and patterns guaranteed to challenge your eyeballs. Peter Hylenski's sound design piles amplification on singers already given to belting beyond the last row of the balcony. The result is a musical comedy haunting that constitutes a sensory assault; if sheer attitude were all, this one would have smash hit written all over it.

It's telling, then, that the result of these hard-sell antics is enervation: Beetlejuice keeps raising its voice without ever making much of an impression, largely because its creators have been unable to locate a detectable emotional pattern that might make one care about its six principals as they are whipsawed between this world and the next. It substitutes crassness for real humor and its desire to please is so insistent that it quickly becomes grating. Brash and brassy, it has all the sticking power of ectoplasm.

The book, by Scott Brown and Anthony King, monkeys considerably with the screenplay of Burton's 1998 comedy, rearranging events and giving characters so many conflicting agendas that the result is a traffic jam of plot lines. Inevitably, the title character is front and center, for better or for worse. (As if winking at their own revisionist intentions, the authors have him announce, after the opening number, "Holy crap! A ballad already? And such a bold departure from the original source material.") Beetlejuice, "a dead guy stuck in the world of the living," yearns to be released from the unsettled state in which he walks the earth, alone and unseen. As he puts it, "I'm invisible. Powerless. Like a gay Republican."

As it happens, Beetlejuice's liberation plan involves killing off a married couple, Adam and Barbara Maitland, dispatching them through the creaky floorboards of their Victorian farmhouse and enlisting their aid in his cause. (The plan involves getting a living person to say his name three times in succession and, somehow, he thinks the Maitlands can help.) Possibly because he tells them, "As for me I've been scarin'/For millenia/I'm the bio-exorcist givin'/houses enemas," they don't instantly find Beetlejuice charming. Meanwhile, their farmhouse is purchased by Charles, an overbearing developer who plans to flip the property to Maxie Dean, a mogul who shows up everywhere with his extensive legal team in tow. Charles, a widower, is also at odds with his teenage daughter, Lydia: She yearns for her recently deceased mother -- whom Charles, insisting that it is time move on, refuses to discuss.

Adam and Barbara should be invisible to ordinary mortals but, for some reason, Delia can see them; they start to form an impromptu family while Charles pursues his home-makeover plans and Beetlejuice busily sows chaos around the place. There are hauntings, cases of possession (one of which is driven, as in the film, by the Harry Belafonte classic "Day-O"), and trips to the Netherworld, where the prominent citizens include a bombastic former Miss Argentina and Juno, a cranky, officious social worker who blows smoke out of her tracheotomy incision. (This was the role that, in the film, gave the great Sylvia Sidney a late-in-life triumph.) Other prominent elements include the roasted pig that bounces back to life on its serving platter; a game show sequence titled Life! Or! Death!, which comes complete with a wheel of torture; and the chase through the series of tilted portals that lead to the bowels of the earth. All this carrying-on is in the cause of bucking up troubled families and immature married couples but, rather than giving their frenzied farce a little breathing room, the creative team keeps piling on louder songs and cruder gags in the conviction that if one showstopper is good, six are even better.

There are some awfully pleasant people running around in Beetlejuice, all of whom labor mightily to address the show's charm deficit. Young Sophia Anne Caruso, who earned plenty of attention Off Broadway in The Nether and Lazarus, confidently seizes the stage as Lydia, who, in mourning, has made herself into a kind of Charles Addams waif, her ghostly pallor and all-black wardrobe perfectly matched with a default look of lip-curling scorn. She makes her big ballads, "Dead Mom" and "Home," sound better than they in fact are -- Eddie Perfect's melodies have a pleasant pop sensibility, but his lyrics are often flat-footed -- and she brings the only touch of real feeling to the proceedings. Rob McClure and Kerry Butler contribute their casual way with comedy to the roles of the eternally befuddled Adam and Barbara, but even they give way to over-the-top belting in the number "Barbara 2.0," in which they vow to become wiser, more mature dead people. Adam Dannheisser is solid in the thankless role of Charles, but it is Leslie Kritzer who nails every available laugh as Delia, Lydia's life coach ("It's real - do the research!") and Charles' surreptitious lover. Delia's pretensions know no bounds -- "Do you think this dress says 'mindfulness'?" she asks, modeling a slinky-looking number -- nor does her penchant for gnomic, empty sayings designed to provide instant uplift. She's an angel of light with a sordid past and a desperate need for validation, her best intentions addled by her lust for Charles. (When he muses that a house sale to Maxie is his "white whale," she replies, piously, "I don't see race.") Kritzer also doubles as the late Miss Argentina, leading a superfluous number titled "What I Know Now," but, even here, she gives Beetlejuice a pronounced lift.

Returning to the Winter Garden after his extensive run in School of Rock, Alex Brightman throws himself into the title role, leering, growling, throwing himself at his fellow cast members, and bearing the brunt of the show's hostile, school-of-Don Rickles humor with little concern for wearing out his welcome. (One bit, about Katharine Hepburn, Mexican food, and anal sex, counts as the least necessary gag line of the twenty-first century.) His Beetlejuice is a pansexual id -- he makes passes at Adam and Barbara and, in the climax, attempts to marry himself off to the underage Lydia, cueing a production number, "Creepy Old Guy," that states and restates its premise ad infinitum. But, from his first number, "The Whole 'Being Dead' Thing," he is less an agent provocateur than that guest who drags down your dinner party with his focus-stealing antics. The actor's commitment cannot be denied, but neither he nor the writers have provided a reason to tolerate what becomes an increasingly tiresome procession of shtick.

Alex Timbers stages the entire frantically cartooned enterprise with nonstop energy, aided by Connor Gallagher's choreography, Michael Curry's puppets, Jeremy Chernick's special effects, and Michael Weber's magic and illusion design: Bands of cheerleaders and gospel choirs appear and vanish with alacrity, funeral attendees arrange themselves in various dolorous formations, and a roomful of houseguests, possessed by spirits, go into a strenuous dance. In the rare moments of quiet, you might wonder about the story's lack of internal coherence: If the dead are routinely dispatched to the Netherworld, why do Adam and Barbara hang around their home? Why does Lydia automatically see them? If is the stage is so frequently occupied by residents of the Netherworld, why do we never hear a peep from Lydia's mom?

You might also notice that the characters' dilemmas are treated so superficially as to barely matter at all. All the most flippant and risqué musical comedies of recent years - up to and including The Book of Mormon -- build their comedy on a solid foundation of emotional reality; all you need is a kernel of feeling to give the audience a rooting interest in what happens next. In contrast, Beetlejuice is a fun house with nothing shoring it up; its garish attractions provide surprisingly scant amusement. --David Barbour

(26 April 2019)

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