Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Bee–
By Ben Kindberg
Although it premiered in April, this October is the perfect time to boogie on down to the Winter Garden Theater and start your Halloween month off right. You may, as I was, be turned off to this show by the tacky 1980’s goth aesthetic or bad memories of the Tim Burton classic from your childhood. I hope you can set these apprehensions aside, for the cast and crew of Beetlejuice create an immersive, heartwarming, and hilarious Broadway experience.
Indisputably, what makes this show a must see is the visual effects. What lighting designer Kenneth Posner has done with the atmosphere in the Winter Garden is genius. Posner has positioned lights not just on the stage, but all around the theater, extending the stage’s world into the audience. From wherever you’re seated, you’ll be sucked into the world of the characters by the eerie glow of flickering neon or the confusing chaos of strobe lights dancing from one side of the theater to the other. Without Burton’s iconic stop motion giant worms, Puppet Designer Michael Curry still managed to make sand worms, giant ghost hands, and breakdancing skeletons that stay true to the creepy claymation aesthetic of the classic flic. These puppets look like an acid fueled nightmare of Jim Henson. Imagine the energy of a Time Square Elmo with one suspiciously limp arm combined with the look of the back of a Spencer’s. The last great way Beetlejuice immerses you in a trippy, haunted world is through intelligent set design. The stage is outlined by a great neon border, that when combined with the other lighting gives the appearance of a “deep as space” stage. In the abyss of the underworld, the audience feels they’re being sucked into the great beyond thanks to intelligent staging.
Now where the show is weakest is the music. From the opening number to the bows, no individual song was ever stuck in my head. Every number judged only by the music is a stereotypical Broadway jam. Nothing sticks out. This weakness weirdly serves the show and enhances the performance. The basic show jams serve like a blank canvas on which plenty of pop culture references, jokes, and gaffs are painted. Additionally, the raw talent of the actors and pit is on display, and you’ll be enchanted by equally emotional and hilarious performances from number to number. “Dead Mom” for example, isn’t sad because it’s a good song, but because Sophia Anne Caruso brings real emotion to the role of Lydia and kills this number. All of Beetlejuice’s numbers serve the same purpose; they’re funnier than they are good songs.
Themes and characters:
An important character worth mentioning is Delia Deetz, Charles’s second wife, who has a troubling relationship with her new stepdaughter. In media, I think stepparents are typically portrayed as sleezy, cunning villains. Delia, despite her many faults and disagreements with Lydia, is genuinely concerned for her well-being. She is aware of how difficult the grieving process is for Lydia, and despite being unequipped emotionally, makes an honest and concerted effort to do what is best for her. She is also not portrayed as being only in love with Charles’s wealth and earnestly loves him for who he is as a person. Despite being played for laughs for much of the show, Delia is without a doubt a great example of a good woman with lots of love to give; it is really great to see step parents represented well in popular media. It’s heartwarming.
Another great way this musical warms your undead heart is through the themes conveyed by the characters. Each of the main characters has to deal with death in a unique way and how they interact may tell us something about how we process grief. Adam and Barbara Maitland die in an accident and have to come to grips with the abrupt end of lives they feel were incomplete. Powerless to change their circumstances, the Maitlands’ turn to a deceased bio-exorcist against their better judgement. Equally powerless are Lydia Deetz and her father, Charles, who purchased the Maitland’s home when they die. Both grieving from the death of Charles’s wife and Lydia’s mother. While unable to properly process this grief, Lydia takes to acting irrationally and summoning the Maitlands to haunt her new home, who themselves hope to scare away any new tenants. Charles looks to make his new home as little like the one his wife passed in, leaving behind any memory of his troubled past. When these characters realize they can’t outrun their grief or their own death, they’re able to face their troubles head on. Lydia and Charles can speak openly about their shared grief and Adam and Barbara find empowerment in their new undead abilities. The only character unable to outrun his own demise is Beetlejuice. Beetlejuice’s arc is the longest of the whole show, being established earliest, and taking until the very end to resolve. Alone as a dead man in the world of the living, Beetlejuice can’t be seen or heard by anyone alive. To be seen, he needs for someone living to say his name three times. To return to the living, he needs to be married to a living person, who he finds in Lydia (He calls it “like a green card situation”). Constantly seeking to leave his current situation leads Beetlejuice down a path of trying to torment, deceive, coerce, and blackmail all the other characters into saying his name or marrying him to Lydia. Realizing they’ve been played, the Maitlands and Deetzs trick Beetlejuice into being pulled into the netherworld. The message here is that death is inevitable, and any attempt at running from it, whether it be your own death or the death of someone you love, is more destructive than facing up to its inevitability. A heavy message, but it presented in a way that will make you laugh, sing, and maybe cry. Beetlejuice is definitely worth your time.
Suggested Drinking Game:
Smuggle Bacardi (it’s got a bat so you can keep to the spooky theme) into the theater, and drink every time:
- Anyone mentions “the whole being dead thing”
- Beetlejuice makes a pop culture refence
- Worms are mentioned
- Be careful; you might die.