Review: Broadway in Austin’s Beetlejuice

There's a lot of life in this show about death

Isabella Esler as Lydia and Justin Collette as Beetlejuice in the Broadway in Austin production of the musical adaptation of Beetlejuice (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Musical versions of successful films are often less like gilding the lily than sewing wings on a donkey. But for a movie like Beetlejuice, where two of the most memorable scenes are song-and-dance routines and the titular character could work the Borscht Belt, that lily is fresh as a daisy.

And lilies are a suitable choice for a floral arrangement: the flower of mourning is only right for this is, as deliciously morbid and hysterical opening number "The Whole 'Being Dead' Thing" points out, a show about death. A riotously funny and clap-along excellent show about death, indeed.

“This is still the Beetlejuice that you have always pressed to your dark little heart like a dying rose. You better believe it: it’s still showtime.”
Tim Burton's 1988 horror-comedy about a haunting told from the ghost's perspective was the first time he got to show his ghoulish stylings in a feature, and did as much to define goth culture as the first three Sisters of Mercy albums. Yet it's also a big slice of heartland Americana, as the ghosts are a very average couple who find themselves among the recently departed. Adam (on opening night, Matthew Michael Janisse filled in with aptly awkward gusto for tour regular Will Burton) and Barbara (an exquisitely goofy and sweet turn from Megan McGinnis) find themselves sharing their former mortal coil abode with the ever-so-morose teen Lydia Deetz (Isabella Esler, making a cracking main stage debut), her boorish and emotionally remote father, Charles (Jesse Sharp, adding a likable twist essential for this version), and his woo-woo life coach/new love, Delia (Sarah Lizsinger, absolutely relishing every part of her topknotted silliness).

Scott Brown and Anthony King's book is an excellent redevelopment of the original film script by Michael McDowell, Larry Wilson, and Texas' own Warren Skaaren (the latter responsible for much of the film's signature humor). Their version takes a small element of the screenplay's subtext and expands it into a major plot strand about children and parents. The Maitlands having waffled about having a baby (examined in "Ready, Set, Not Yet") interweaves with half-orphaned Lydia's early standout "Dead Mom" and gives an added emotional twist to their interest in this strange and unusual girl in their home.

Justin Collette as the one, the only, accept no imitations, bio-exorcist Beetlejuice and the tour company of Beetlejuice (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

But this is really Beetlejuice's show, and while it never lags or lacks energy when the bio-exorcist is not around, whenever Justin Collette appears under that green wig the show explodes off the stage as he banters with the audience. Determined to use any manner of tricks and schemes to get back into the land of the living, this Beetlejuice absorbs the side-splitting asides of the pantomime dame in a performance that doesn't need the giant props or chorus line of Beetlejuices to engulf the entire stage. And, yes, even he has some unresolved mommy issues that become much more pressing in the second act's journey into the expressionistic Netherworld.

Subtle changes are inevitable for a touring production, such as the Maitlands' demise no longer being down to an untrustworthy floor, but none are to the detriment of the show. Indeed, David Korins deserves a second Tony for converting his deservedly award-winning set into a version that can be packed up and ported around the country. The performances have also undergone inevitable evolutions: case in point, "Barbara 2.0" now feels more like a coming together of the dearly departed coupe than on Broadway, where it resonated more with a spirit of independence for the late Mrs. Maitland.

But this is still the Beetlejuice that you have always pressed to your dark little heart like a dying rose, even down to the hunter with the shrunken head and the bounce-in-your-seat joy of "Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)" for which the audience was clapping from the first note. Expensive on-screen VFX may have been replaced with glow-in-the-dark paint and flash paper, but you better believe it: it's still showtime.

Broadway in Austin’s Beetlejuice

Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman, 512/471-2787
Through Feb. 11
Running time: 2 hrs. 30 mins.

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