Isabella Esler (Lydia). Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2022.
The name “Beetlejuice” (warning: don’t say it three times) is familiar to anyone who has seen the 1988 film of the same name . . . and that’s a lot of people. The Tim Burton classic is popular among viewers of all ages and demographics, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the perfect combination of creepy and funny, and the special effects are amazing. Don’t be fooled though. While the musical version, onstage now at DPAC, may be based on the film, it offers a new and fresh take on the tale, thanks to an edgy book by Scott Brown and Anthony King and sometimes-beautiful, sometimes- raunchy, and sometimes-both music and lyrics from Eddie Perfect. The amazing special effects, however, remain the same, if not better, and the story is updated just enough to make it even more pertinent and enjoyable.
Speaking of the story, it all starts with young Lydia Deetz, played by the uber-talented Isabella Esler. Esler is a newcomer to the professional theater scene, but it doesn’t show at all. She is fresh-faced, despite her character’s goth makeup, an expert at exuding emotion, and enjoyable to watch at every second. Plus, her vocal range is beyond impressive.
Through her character’s hauntingly lovely opening song, “Prologue: Invisible,” viewers learn that Lydia has recently lost her mother. As they start to feel for her, Beetlejuice, portrayed by the hilarious Justin Collette, who is quite obviously having an absolute blast, comes in and changes the mood completely. He mocks her as he speaks directly to the audience, something he will do in a tongue-in-cheek way throughout the entire show. It’s also the first of many times that the tone shifts rapidly, jarring the audience and keeping them on their toes in a wonderful way.
In fact, “wonderful” is a word that can be applied to just about everything that happens under Alex Timbers’ adept direction. Viewers watch in awe and anticipation as Lydia, her father (Jesse Sharp), and her clueless-but-lovable life coach, Delia (Kate Marilley) move into the house that Beetlejuice inhabits. It’s also the house where a bumbling, recently deceased couple, Barbara (Juliane Godfrey) and Adam (Will Burton) Maitland reside. There, Beetlejuice concocts a master plan to use the couple to convince a living person to say his name three times so that he can wreak absolute havoc. The only snag in the plan is that Lydia can see the Maitlands, and even worse for Beetlejuice, she likes them.
To say much more would give away the rapidly unfolding, always engaging plot, but don’t worry. There’s still a lot left to praise. For one thing David Korins’ scenic design pulls out all the stops. The house set is done up in true Burtonesque storybook style. It’s both bizarre and beautiful, and even better, it goes through many changes, each one more visually intriguing than the last, as the night goes on. There’s also a giant (and terrifying) sand worm, a 3-D video screen, hands that shoot from plates, a creepy Beetlejuice head, and eerie lighting effects.
The possession scene, which happens near the end of the first act, combines almost all of these elements into a few minutes of theatrical magic. Featuring twisted, can’t-look-away choreography from Connor Gallagher and a welcome sensory overload of visual appeal, this scene also showcases the incredible talent of the cast.
Of course, that talent is evident in numerous other places as well. Godfrey is the sweetest Barabra you could hope for, and she plays well off of Will Burton’s fun, extra-nerdy, but ultimately adorable take on his character. Likewise, despite her character’s imperfections, Marilley never lets viewers forget that Delia has a good heart underneath it all. Sharp also nails his character’s more emotional moments, and even smaller parts, like the second act’s scared Girl Scout (Jackera Davis) and super funny party guest Maxine (Lexie Dorsett Sharp) are acted with enthusiasm.
To hear the green-haired Beetlejuice tell it, this is “a show about death” where “people just die, and [the audience is] clapping.” And, while that’s true, it’s also a show about a whole lot more. For one thing, its clever script challenges toxic positivity and points out more than a few problematic modern issues, several of which are tackled by the amazing “Creepy Old Guy” number. For another, at its heart, it’s about mourning what you've lost, appreciating what you have, and surrounding yourself with a family of your choice. There just so happen to be plenty of jump scares, fake and real cartwheels, and a few dirty jokes along the way. And, honestly, it’s hard to think of anything better or more appealing. Beetlejuice is a scary-good time packed with plenty of heart, and if you see only one show this year, this one should be it.
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