Elaine Stritch once visited Nathan Lane backstage at the “Addams Family” musical and famously told him, “They’re not paying you enough.” They’re not paying Alex Brightman enough to star in the ghost ship of a new musical called “Beetlejuice,” which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre to mark the unfortunate end of the 2018-19 Broadway season.
Book writers Scott Brown and Anthony King have wisely beefed up the title role for Brightman. In Tim Burton’s 1988 movie, Michael Keaton pops up occasionally in his deathly white makeup and dirty striped suit. In the musical, Brightman plays emcee to the Netherworld, and thankfully never leaves the stage for very long. Where Joel Grey in “Cabaret” was wryly epicene, Brightman is a marvel by being blatantly gross. He manages to captivate even when his wink or grimace signals that the jokes are dead on arrival.
“Beetlejuice” the musical suffers from a severe case of rigor mortis. Brown and King haven’t written the season’s worst book. That honor is a toss-up between “Pretty Woman” and “Be More Chill.” Eddie Perfect’s score for “Beetlejuice,” however, is hands down/slit your wrists the worst of the season. His only real competition is the score for “King Kong,” which he also wrote.
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To call Perfect’s music perky in a TV jingle kind of way is insulting to the people behind “Wayfair, you’ve got just what I need!” When “King Kong” and “Beetlejuice” shutter, Perfect will compete with Bono and the Edge (“Spider-Man”) for the biggest money-losing composer in Broadway history.
Brown and King’s good ideas end with making Beetlejuice the lead character. Their worst is what they’ve done to Lydia (Winona Ryder) from the movie. The hip goth teen now mourns her dead mother obsessively, and is on a quest to find mom in the Netherworld. It’s a teary downer in a show about death that Burton knew to keep floating on a formaldehyde high.
Playing Lydia, Sophia Anne Caruso unleashes a laser-focused soprano that penetrates to the point of making Perfect’s lyrics unintelligible. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, Alex Timbers directs Caruso to resemble Millie Perkins in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” only slightly more sanctimonious.
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Timbers used to be known as the Tim Burton of Broadway, thanks to his quirky vision and imaginative staging of shows like “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Then along came a short-lived musical version of “Rocky,” and now “Beetlejuice.” Hopefully, his upcoming “Moulin Rouge!” will offer a rescue mission.
Fine performers like Rob McClure and Kerry Butler are completely buried alive in bad material here. In the movie, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are comically unscary as a recently deceased couple whose house is taken over by Lydia and her family. In the same roles in the musical, McClure and Butler are scarily uncomic.
David Korins’s design for the massive haunted house never takes flight except for some Edward Gorey-inspired bats that flutter across the cyclorama (projection design by Peter Nigrini). Many of William Ivey Long’s costumes are also Gorey knock-offs.
Along with Brightman, Leslie Kritzer does rise from the dead of this six-feet-under production. As Lydia’s sexy stepmom, Delia (the Catherine O’Hara role), she takes dross and turns it into comic angel dust.