This is a review about death, err — a review about a show about death. At least that’s what Beetlejuice, playing through May 28 at the National Theatre, frequently asserts itself to be over the course of its two-and-a-half-hour run. But this Beetlejuice, based on the 1988 Tim Burton film of the same name, is less about death than it might have you believe, and more about the ways we continue living in the wake of shattering loss.
Washington audiences are no strangers to this production, having endured its 2018 pre-Broadway tryout ahead of its 2019 New York debut. Beetlejuice has returned to the National tighter than its previous iteration, with great credit to director Alex Timbers and book writers Scott Brown and Anthony King, though its self-conscious, albeit lively, score by Eddie Perfect (supported with orchestrations and incidental music by Kris Kukul) remains largely unmemorable. But what Beetlejuice lacks in distinct melodies and hummable tunes, it makes up for in nonstop, raunchy, laugh-out-loud comedy. Audiences might have considered asking the lethal question of why this material should have been musicalized at all, if they weren’t so busy guffawing at the lyrics.
Beetlejuice opens on a funeral (this is a show about death, remember?), where teenager Lydia grieves the loss of her mother. Alongside her newly-single real estate developer father and his peppy life coach girlfriend Delia, Lydia moves into the former home of the wholesome Adam and Barbara, a recently deceased couple who enlist the help of the demon Beetlejuice to take back control of the house from their perch in the attic. As the characters conspire to regain what they’ve lost (a mother, a home, a chance at life, etc.), venturing to the netherworld and back, they’re forced to confront the permanency of death and the necessity of grieving to move forward with life.
The principal cast, led by a deliciously gravel-voiced Justin Collete in the title role, carry the show with such electric energy that they shine nearly as bright as Kenneth Posner’s lighting. Isabella Esler’s macabre Lydia is mournful and devious, and when Esler sings the musical’s two major ballads, “Dead Mom” and “Home,” her voice explodes with a maturity that is beyond her years (she recently graduated high school). In contrast, Kate Marilley’s fantastically flighty Delia is so out of touch with reality that she almost makes you want to enlist her coaching services out of curiosity (at least for a free 30-day trial period).
Timbers’ production is a feast for the eyes. Connor Gallagher’s upbeat choreography, William Ivey Long’s flashy costumes, Peter Nigrini’s eerie projections, and Michael Curry’s beautiful puppets fill the stage with bursts of color and off-beat creepiness. They honor the source material while bringing a distinctly Broadway pizazz to the stage. Scenic designer David Korins is particularly effective and economical in his contributions, thoughtfully redressing a handful of props and set pieces to transform the interior of the home several times.
For a show so firmly rooted in the grave (have you forgotten that it’s about death?), Beetlejuice will leave most audience members full of the kind of laughter-induced exhilaration that is among the best parts of living (right up there with falling in love and going to the theater). While you shouldn’t expect to be humming an earworm (sandworm?) as you exit onto Pennsylvania Avenue, you’ll more likely than not walk out after the final curtain brandishing a smile, and maybe, just maybe feeling the urge to turn to a friend and ask: “Wasn’t that to die for?”
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Beetlejuice plays through May 28 at the National Theatre located at 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC. Tickets (starting at $60) are available online or by calling the box office at (202) 628-6161, Monday through Friday 12 pm to 6 pm.
Recommended for 13+. Parental discretion advised.
Cast and creative credits for the North American tour of Beetlejuice can be found here.
COVID Safety: Masks are strongly recommended but not required for all ticket holders. For full COVID protocol, go here.
Music and Lyrics by Eddie Perfect. Book by Scott Brown and Anthony King. Musical Supervision, Orchestrations, & Incidental Music by Kris Kukul. Directed by Alex Timbers. Choreography by Connor Gallagher.