Like movie theater blockbusters and best-selling fiction franchises, Broadway has its own version of the audience vs. critic debate, where the biggest commercial successes are often the ones least likely to earn strong reviews. Acclaimed musicals like Kimberly Akimbo and A Strange Loop take home the industry’s top prize for musical productions but never quite break into the mainstream zeitgeist. Meanwhile, in the continued Disney-fication of Times Square, stage productions on existing IP—however middling the songs or mind-numbing the plot—print ticket sales revenue hand-over-fist as tourists, families and locals entertaining out-of-towners claim their seats for a night’s entertainment that’s as non-threatening as it is unoriginal.
Beetlejuice, as I can now confidently say from witnessing the chaos (and the audience’s enthusiastic embrace of it) for myself, is just one more in this them vs. us column, a production based on Tim Burton’s classic 1988 film starring Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin and Catherine O’Hara. A bombastic, traveling circus funhouse of a show with music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect and book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, Beetlejuice the musical is an exhausting two hours plus for a film that was just over 90 minutes. All that filler is in the shape of songs competing with each other for showstopper status, carnival-like sets that practically shout from the stage, and actors, particularly Justin Collette as Beetlejuice and Kate Marilley as Delia, with energy to spare. Would they could bottle it.
A pre-pandemic production that paused for the shutdowns only to return in mid-2022 for a short run before closing on Broadway in January 2023, the show was nominated for a respectable eight Tony Awards when it debuted in 2019. Tellingly, it did not win a single one. Now, the show is looking to find the masses where they live, rather than depending on them to come to New York. This type of lowest-common-denominator theater will always do better on tour, and if the audience at Chicago’s opening night at the Auditorium Theatre was any indication, it will fare just fine. I lost count of the number of Beetlejuices wandering the lobby during intermission, let alone the number of people wearing the title character’s black and white prison stripes or its complementary neon green in some part of their ensemble. While not entirely family friendly (the show adds a bit of bite the PG-rated film never had, with plenty of F-bombs, middle fingers and dirty jokes), plenty of parents brought their little demons out to the show, too. Whatever gets the next generation to the theater, I suppose….
From the first, Beetlejuice is moving at a breakneck pace, with a witty opening number (“The Whole ‘Being Dead’ Thing”) that gleefully breaks the fourth wall and introduces Beetlejuice as a comedic and devilish tornado of kinetic energy. This, it turns out, is the show’s high point, as every other number feels shoe-horned into a plot that didn’t ask for it with staging, including a dozen other Beetlejuices, cartoonish skeletons, and a sad-looking sand worm, crowding this already overly busy production. Collette has comedy chops, at least, and as played by Isabella Ester, a recent high school graduate making her professional debut, Lydia, the goth girl who moves into a home Beetlejuice would prefer to haunt, has plenty of heart and quite a set of pipes. But other characters are an afterthought, like Jesse Sharp’s Charles, Lydia’s dad who this plot, as it’s been refashioned, doesn’t quite know what to do with.
Like the in-your-face musical numbers, running gags (like Beetlejuice’s flirting with Adam, one half of the duo who used to own the house and now haunts it) get old quickly, but the crowd that turned out for this particular show didn’t seem to notice, as laughter, whoops and applause broke out often enough that I’d have trouble explaining why. For every genuinely clever one-liner (a late quip referencing Sondheim’s Company, also in town on tour a few blocks north, got me good), there are a half dozen tired puns that induce more eye-rolling than giggles.
But perhaps all of that is by design, and the creators behind Beetlejuice are onto something: capitalism. If the tickets sell, what does it matter what I (or Ben Brantley) have to say about it? A show like this proves that artistic integrity is not required for success; perhaps, devastatingly, it’s not required at all. A show like this proves that in order to succeed (while the Broadway show closed at a loss, the tour has already recouped its investment) entertainment—high-brow, low-brow or anywhere in between—must simply entertain.
Broadway in Chicago’s Beetlejuice is playing at the Auditorium Theatre (50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr.) through November 19; it’s already scheduled to return in May 2024.
For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.
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