If ever there was a musical theater adaptation from a movie that I didn't see coming, it's Beetlejuice. But the darkly comic Tim Burton classic from 1988 translates remarkably well to the stage, with plenty of tweaks and updates, and a terrific score by Australian singer-songwriter Eddie Perfect.
Maybe it needed to wait until 2022, when audiences had experienced everything from Harry Potter time traveling to a Mormon missionary trying to convert an African warlord to a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton on a Broadway stage, for the world to be ready for Beetlejuice, the Musical (the Musical, the Musical... get it?). But the bizarre and brilliantly comic movie about the unpleasantness of the afterlife, and one minor demon's quest to get out of it, makes for a wildly hilarious stage adaptation — with a big helping hand from witty book writers Scott Brown and Anthony King, best known for the 2006 off-Broadway musical spoof Gutenberg, the Musical!.
This Beetlejuice tosses out a few of the plot points from the Tim Burton film, and rearranges or revises a few others, taking us quickly into the upside-down parallel world inhabited by Beetlejuice, the character (played here with amazing manic timing by Justin Collette), as well as the newly dead Adam and Barbara Maitland (Will Burton and Britney Coleman, both great comic actors and singers).
The updated Maitlands are nerdy liberals in a small Connecticut town who live in a carefully refurbished Victorian and take adult-learning classes. When asked by Beetlejuice what they're most afraid of, Barbara spontaneously shouts, "Trader Joe's parking lot!" while Adam screams "The Electoral College!"
In waltz the Deetzes, recently widowed Charles (Jesse Sharp), goth daughter Lydia (played impressively by understudy Nevada Riley in last night's performance, who comes from the Broadway cast), and dad's secret girlfriend Delia (the hilarious Kate Marilley) who in this version has been hired as a life coach for Lydia and is doing a terrible job at it. And what ensues will be familiar to any fans of the film — with the exception, SPOILER ALERT, of the face-grabbing shrimp in the "Day-O" number... there's only one here.
Suffice it to say that many of the pleasures of the musical version arise in the ingenuity and stagecraft with which the ghostly and demonic effects of the film get translated — for which much credit should go to scenic designer David Korins, projection designer Peter Nigrini, puppet designer Michael Curry, special effects designer Jeremy Chernick, and "magic & illusion designer" Michael Weber. And all the other delight and hilarity come from the dialogue and a virtuosic, maniacal comic performance by Justin Collette — whose only Broadway credit is playing the lead in School of Rock. Filling shoes previously filled by Michael Keaton and Broadway's Alex Brightman (who incidentally also did the School of Rock role), is no laughing matter, but Collette pulls it off with seeming ease.
It's a show that will draw ardent fans of the 34-year-old film as well as Broadway fans, and it's sure to please both — although arguably this version has more laughs per minute than the original, and contains "bonus" elements for fans like a full musical number by the undead, blue-skinned underworld clerk Miss Argentina (props to the terrific Danielle Marie Gonzalez). And Eddie Perfect's score is great on its own, though the most memorable song — apart from Beetlejuice's raucus opener "The Whole 'Being Dead' Thing" — and the prettiest, is Barbara and Adam's song "Barbara 2.0" from Act 2.
Sometimes theater is just for ribald fun and belly laughs, and insofar as the world needs comedy more than ever, Beetlejuice the Musical is a home run (as evidenced also by the fact that its Broadway run, interrupted by COVID, is still going on). And given how impressive the sheer density of jokes and great lyrics is, I can't wait to see what this writing team comes up with next.
'Beetlejuice' runs through December 31 at the Golden Gate Theater. Find tickets at BroadwaySF.
Top image: Pictured (L-R): Isabella Esler (Lydia) and Justin Collette(Beetlejuice) Photo by Matthew Murphy.