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Thirty years ago, someone must have made a deal with a devil. Tim Burton, then best known for directing the bright and zany Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, was chosen to helm a horror-comedy with a meandering script, no clear protagonist, a shoestring budget, and a lewd titular villain. Practically dead before it even opened, the film staggered into theaters. It was hailed as an instant cult classic.
Beetlejuice has endured as a cultural cornerstone largely due to its title character, played with sleazy menace in the film by Michael Keaton. Betelgeuse (the movie’s title is a homonym he uses) barely appeared in his own movie—he has fewer than 20 minutes of total screen time—but the ghoul’s outsized presence was enough to spawn countless nostalgia-laced retrospectives for the film’s 30th anniversary this October.
Free buzz like that is rarely not capitalized on. Beetlejuice has been necromanced from a 30-year slumber to live again in Beetlejuice: The Musical, currently having its world premiere at The National in advance of a Broadway debut this spring. No one makes it through 30 years without looking different, and it’s very apparent Beetlejuice has had some work done since we saw him last, but the overall effect of these nips and tucks have been beneficial.
The original lascivious human-buster has perhaps been softened by nostalgia and his later, more avuncular appearance in an animated TV show, making his presence in the current Zeitgeist much more affable than Keaton’s F bomb-dropping menace. He’s reimagined here somewhere in the middle by Broadway vet Alex Brightman. That’s not to say his take on Betelgeuse has been neutered—if anything, he’s even more of a lush, foisting his fetid charms on anything with a heartbeat (and several dead things, too). But Brightman’s air of buffoonery softens the character into more of a raspy rapscallion, so inept at his attempts to woo others that it’s easier to accept him as a loveable oaf than a nightmarish molestor.
Another inspired change the musical implements: making Lydia Deetz (Sophia Anne Caruso) a true protagonist. The movie focuses on the Maitlands, a dorky, recently deceased duo who enlist the bio-exorcist Betelgeuse to terrorize a couple of New York ditzes out of their home. In the movie, Lydia is little more than a moody MacGuffin, whom Betelgeuse wants to use to escape the Netherworld, and whom the Maitlands ultimately rescue from both the ghost and her ridiculous parents.
In the musical, Lydia is given the spotlight and—finally!—some agency, coming up with a plan to out-con the creepy conman and save herself and her family. The tiny Caruso commands all the extra stage space granted to her, belting out a few touching ballads and playing beautifully off her undead co-star. The decision to pick a protagonist from the more ensemble-structured movie comes at the expense of the reduced presence of Adam (Rob McClure) and Barbara (Kerry Butler) Maitland, who are so intensely loveable as nerds trying earnestly, and failing spectacularly, to terrorize the invading Deetz family. It’s a pity they couldn’t be afforded more time on stage. Even their iconic final movie appearance, looking like two grotesque pterodactyls, is reduced to a brief cameo in the string of “remember this from the movie?” sight gags that constitute the only interesting fragments of the time the musical chooses to spend in the Netherworld.
In fact, the entire Netherworld sequence is a bit of a mess, abandoning David Korins’ delightful, ever-shifting sets depicting several locations in the Maitland house with a neat lighting trick and little else. The Netherworld is also home to a rapping undead boy band that fails to be effective. A few lighting effects here were blinding enough to make brief sequences of the show literally unwatchable.
Some of the other changes the musical makes from the movie are classic Broadway sanitations, removing references to the Netherworld as a place where suicides are punished with an eternity of boredom and bureaucracy and amplifying the admittedly already feel-good “Shake Senora” conclusion of the film with a happy resolution not just for the Maitlands and Lydia, but also for Charles Deetz (Adam Dannheisser) and his unredeemed life coach, Delia (Leslie Kritzer).
That smacks of the kind of corporate calculating that could bowdlerize the movie’s dark and offbeat soul in an attempt to make a crowd pleaser. But Beetlejuice finds its footing by leaning hard into its raunchy, nerdy, freak-flag-flying soul. Those looking for a more family-friendly affair should look elsewhere. If the musical can find its Burton-loving fanbase, however, it will prove harder to banish than the ghost himself.
To Nov. 18 at 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. $54–$114. (202) 628-6161. thenationaldc.org.