Now this is how you open a show — at least if it’s a big-budget, Broadway-caliber musical adaptation of a beloved film, that is. Go for broke from the first number.
Springing up from the depths below, the demon Beetlejuice enters his self-titled musical like a rock star, and why shouldn’t he? Tim Burton’s haunted ’80s circus of a film, led by Michael Keaton’s id-soaked performance, has ensured the long-dead ghost eternal pop culture life. Thirty years on, the character’s more sprightly than a Rolling Stone, with his own greatest hits to play. And he’s ready for a comeback with the bawdy world-premiere production of Beetlejuice the Musical (★★★★), directed by Alex Timbers, a Tony nominee for Peter and the Starcatcher.
In for a brief, invigorating run at the National Theatre before it pops up on Broadway in spring 2019, the show strums several of the movie’s greatest scenes and catchphrases. Shrunken head guy, dancing dinner, and a sandworm all make appearances. But, for the most part, Timber’s production wields inventive stagecraft, along with music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect and a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, to tell the familiar film story differently.
This iteration renders a moving portrait of loss through its motherless Lydia Deetz (Sophia Anne Caruso), alongside the very mature comic ghost story of Beetlejuice (Alex Brightman), the demon who wants to live and breathe. He’s a con man and would-be killer among ghosts, somehow nasty and cuddly thanks to Brightman’s rambunctious energy and quick impulses for reading the room.
Flipping through moods and pitches, Beetlejuice makes easy marks of the innocent and recently dead married couple the Maitlands, Barbara (Kerry Butler) and Adam (Rob McClure), who don’t want to share their house with the living family that just moved in. That would be Lydia and her dad, Charles (Adam Dannheisser), and the woman Charles has yet to reveal he’s sleeping with — Lydia’s crystal-carrying, “Yaaas qween” life coach Delia (Leslie Kritzer).
Charles and Delia makeover the Maitlands’ quaint home in their gauche image, and, accordingly, the walls of scenic designer David Korins’ set shift shape and color. Ken Posner’s rock god lighting turns from sweet to sick to glam with a song.
The Maitland/Deetz/Beetlejuice house and its disappearing portals to the netherworld are marvelous, the puppetry and makeup are seamlessly effective, and the cast and ensemble are tireless in their support of the show’s anything-goes esprit. Although, noting a few parts where the momentum lingers too long on a laugh line wouldn’t be unwarranted.
The songs serve Lydia and Beetlejuice best, as Caruso and Brightman seem to best serve Perfect’s songs, particularly BJ’s opener “The Whole Being Dead Thing” and Lydia’s odd but honest ballad “Dead Mom.” The script, which has a strong handle on the underlying emotions, mostly hits singles with its humor, setting up twice as many jokes as it knocks down — a bit about a boy band, Boy Inferno, generates only one good joke about boy bands. But the show earns points for freshness just for its creative way of delivering a cream pie to the face.
If a cream pie to the face sounds like any kind of entendre, be aware that this dead comic works in an abundance of single, double and non-entendres, all more fun than offensive, depending on which holes and balls jokes might fly over your child’s head (the show advises parental discretion just to be safe). Some of the jokes aim too low to fly over anybody’s head, whereas some jokes are all in the delivery — especially where Kritzer’s daft Delia, or Jill Abramovitz in a variety of roles, are involved.
While the trusting Maitlands’ plight still seems integral to the story, Broadway vets McClure and Butler don’t do much with the characters. The couple’s second-act duet rolls in and out like a perfunctory wind bearing little to none of the electricity that juices every onstage appearance of the titular ghost.
Though he is briefly upstaged by a giant snake within a snake, and a dead big game hunter with a comically tiny head, Beetlejuice still is, after all these years, the ghost with the most around these parts. Thoroughly possessed by the devilish Brightman, he’s the undead emcee for a musical ghost show that’s the most show of any show in town.
Beetlejuice runs to Nov. 18 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Tickets are $54 to $104. Call 202-628-6161, or visit thenationaldc.org.