Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Broadway tour of "Beetlejuice" at the Orpheum Theatre

Beetlejuice is another in a long line of movie-to-musical adaptations. But as such, it's a pretty good one. I usually prefer more intimate character-driven musicals (that's what Theater Latte Da is for), but it's also fun sometimes to see a big, bold, loud, outrageous, over-the-top musical. And that's what Beetlejuice is - over the top in every way. Costumes, sets, puppetry, slight of hand tricks, performances - everything is big and loud and in your face. And it works; the crowd (some of whom were dressed in costume) was super into it on opening night, and it's a fun and wild ride. The 2019 Broadway production was nominated for 8 Tony Awards, but didn't stand much of a chance against the brilliant Hadestown, which was nominated for 13 and won 8. It closed on Broadway in January, and this tour has been running since just before then. It stops in Minneapolis for one week only, so if you're a fan of the movie, or musicals about death, or loud and fun musicals, click here (and only here) to purchase tickets for this limited run.

Britney Coleman, Will Burton, Isabella Esler, and Justin Collette
(photo by Matthew Murphy)
I had never seen the 1988 movie (starring Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, and Michael Keaton as the title character) until a few days before seeing the show, when I watched it on demand just to get some background. Turns out I wouldn't have needed to as the musical diverges quite a bit from the plot of the movie. Little things differ, like how the couple dies and how they come to meet the guide to the underworld Beetlejuice, and big things differ too, shifting the focus of the story from this newly dead couple to Beetlejuice and the goth teenager Lydia who moves into their home. Lydia is given more of a backstory here to explain why she's obsessed with death - her mother recently died, and her father refuses to talk about it. Because she's young and obsessed with dark things, she's able to see Barbara and Adam, the pleasantly square couple upset that their home is being invaded by Lydia's father and life coach (another change from the film). She helps the three ghosts haunt them out of the house, then partners with Beetlejuice to create more havoc. There's a brief pause in the fast and wacky storytelling for Lydia and her father to have a touching moment when searching for her mother in the Netherworld, and then it's back on track for more shenanigans and an eventual happy ending. The plot is really just an excuse for all of the entertaining tricks and jokes, of which there are plenty, including musical theater references (from Company to Hello Dolly!) and nods to pop culture (this story is decidedly not set in 1988).

Highlights of the show include:
  • Understudy Matthew Michael Janisse was an absolutely fabulous Beetlejuice on opening night. I did not realize until after the show that he was an understudy (for Justin Collette), he was so comfortable and playful in the role, and had the audience in the palm of his hand. Another fun thing about this show is that it doesn't take itself too seriously, and Beetlejuice in particular seems to be in on the joke, with some fourth-wall breaking and winks to the audience, well executed by Matthew.
  • Recent high school graduate and Christina Ricci lookalike Isabella Esler is a powerhouse as Lydia, such poise and confidence for someone so young, and that voice!
  • Megan McGinnis and Will Burton are adorably nerdy as the newly dead couple, going from sweet and innocent to reluctant ghosts. 
  • Jesse Sharp is the strong silent type as Lydia's father, eventually softening when she's in trouble. And as his love interest / Lydia's life coach (because that's what a grieving teenager needs), Kate Marilley gives perhaps the most over-the-top performance, with a specific and exaggerated way of speaking, that successfully walks that fine line between endearing and annoying.
  • The large hard-working ensemble plays multiple roles and performs the fun, energetic, and spooky choreography (by Connor Gallagher).
  • The score has some fun, clever, singable songs (although I won't be downloading the cast recording), well played by the pit orchestra conducted by Julia Sunay.
  • The colorful and Halloween-ready costumes including dancing skeletons, the iconic Beetlejuice striped suit (actually many of them), and all kinds of dead people. There's a huge puppet of some kind of worm that eats ghosts, which doesn't seem to serve any purpose other than to show off its fabulousness (costume design by William Ivey Long, puppet design by Michael Curry).
  • The production design is perhaps the most outrageous thing of all, using projections, with multiple curtains to hide the transitions between the old house, the new house, and attic, and more. Fire tricks and other theater tricks go by so fast you don't even have time to think about how they did it. Colorful and bright lighting effects add to the over-the-topness of the show, but I had to cover my eyes on several occasions to block the bright flashing lights pointed directly at the audience from searing into my brain (scenic design by David Korins, projection design by Peter Nigrini, lighting design by Kenneth Posner).
  • The show has an overall spirit of fun, play, and celebration, performed with great energy and speed, jokes about politics and pop culture and musical theater flying by too fast to catch.

photo by Matthew Murphy