“Beetlejuice … Beetlejuice … B–.”
Nope. Any fan of ‘80s pop culture knows that if you utter that name three times in a row, it unleashes the ghost of a green-haired, gravelly-voiced lunatic who will haunt and wreak havoc on the living souls of his choice. Fortunately, for the audience members attending the National Broadway tour of “Beetlejuice” at Playhouse Square’s Connor Palace, a brooding teen named Lydia has the chutzpah to put the final “eetlejuice” on that “B-,” because it conjures up two nonstop hours of frenetic, fabulous fun.
The curtain rises on a scene that could have jumped right off of an Edward Gorey poster. Mourners are surrounding the grave of Lydia Deetz’s mother, Emily, whose death leaves her daughter feeling invisible under the care of her pre-occupied father, Charles, and her new eccentric life coach, Delia, the object of Charles’s preoccupation. Suddenly, Beetlejuice shows up, and all hell breaks loose – literally. Speaking directly to the audience, he riffs about Lydia’s opening ballad being “such a bold departure from the original source material,” and lets us know in his song, “The Whole Being Dead Thing,” that this is a show about death. In fact, he pointedly tells us that “if you die during the show, this show will not stop.” If you find that to be distasteful or crass, it’s just the beginning.
Like Lydia, Beetlejuice just wants to be seen, and the only way for that to happen is if someone summons him by name. His plan is to manipulate the Maitlands, a plain old “normal” couple about to get electrocuted in their own home and die, into haunting the Deetz family, who moves into the Maitland’s home several months after Emily’s death. Lydia is struggling, not only to move on, but to find “home,” and she searches for a sign that her mother’s spirit is with her. Instead of her mother, she stumbles upon the kind, nurturing ghosts of the Maitlands, who are not very competent as “haunters.” Beetlejuice gives up on them and moves on to Lydia, who seems to be able to see dead people. She does not immediately agree to Beetlejuice’s terms, but when she becomes desperate to find her mom, and get rid of her dad, she gives in and conjures him up. “Beetlejuice … Beetlejuice … B–eetlejuice.”
Trickery, con games, a parade of bizarre characters, a peek into “the Netherworld,” and some over-the-top gags ensue, and Lydia, Beetlejuice and the rest of the kooky characters eventually get what they deserve. What that is, you will have to see for yourself – if you can get a ticket. There is very limited seating left for this show, perhaps because it is based on Tim Burton’s popular cult classic film, or it could be that word has gotten out that the cast is truly fantastic.
Justin Collette is no stranger to improvisation, spending years as a sketch/comedy artist, and making a name for himself as Dewey in Broadway’s “School of Rock.” His Beetlejuice is a force to be reckoned with, and his energy and presence are so dynamic and electric that the high-paced show almost seems slow when he is not on stage. He is a true quadruple threat as an actor, singer, dancer and comedian, and his rapport with the audience makes the large theater feel intimate. Collette makes this raunchy, potty-mouth, f-bomb-dropping, devilish demon someone you want to invite over for a beer.
Isabella Esler is incredibly impressive as the troubled but loveable Lydia. This is Esler’s professional debut right out of high school, and it is evident that she has quite a career ahead of her. The doe-eyed Esler is perfectly playful and sardonic, and at the same time vulnerable and passionate. Her voice is just outstanding, with the soulful sophistication of a singer way beyond her years, coupled with a youthful, contemporary edge, and a powerhouse belt that fills the theater.
Britney Coleman and Will Burton are ideal as the “boring” Barbara and Adam Maitland. Fortunately, they are only boring with a lowercase “b” as they add the right amount of punch and panache to their “goody goody” characters.
Jesse Sharp’s Charles Deetz is the perfect straight man to Kate Marilley’s Delia, Lydia’s quirky life-coach. Marilley masterfully puts her own spin on a character that, if put in the wrong hands, could turn out to be grating and wishfully forgettable. Instead, Marilley has infused a refreshing and unique approach to her lines, and she is, in fact, a scene stealer.
The rest of the cast is also top-notch as bit players and as an incredibly strong and versatile singing and dancing ensemble. Whether they are dancing skeleton puppets, Beetlejuice clones, or possessed dinner guests in the popular “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” scene, they are at the top of their game, making the most of Eddie Perfect’s score, which although not particularly memorable, is enjoyable in the moment.
With appropriately outlandish costumes, and expectedly over-the-top lighting, complete with neon and strobe lights, trendy projections and eerie special effects, this production of Beetlejuice is a spectacle. You might feel like you had an intense workout from the manic pace, and there is no arguing that there is definitely some sensory overload, but if you are up for some jaw-dropping antics, bawdy humor, a treasure trove of talent and a couple of hours of faced-paced entertainment without having to think too hard, do yourself a favor and grab a ticket to the Netherworld, take a ride on the tale of a gigantic striped snake (when you know, you know), and conjure up a little chaos in the form of an irritating little demon; Beetlejuice … Beetlejuice … insert name here when you’re ready.
Sheri Gross is the CJN theatre critic. She is a performer, director and freelance writer from Solon. She was the director of the Mandel JCC Playmakers Youth Theatre and Pilloff Performing Arts Camp for over 20 years and is the director of creative programs at Gross Schechter Day School in Pepper Pike.