Thirty-five years after its film debut, the classic Tim Burton Halloween comedy Beetlejuice has been reimagined, first set loose like a demon as a 2019 Broadway musical (score by Eddie Perfect, book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, and directed by Alex Timbers), and now playing at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. My inner goth jumped at the chance to see how it would hold up to audiences today. Not surprisingly, the cult favorite brought out the cosplay fans. Children, drag queens, and would-be demons arrived in their signature black-and-white garb with matching green hair. One child seated next to us proudly displayed her Handbook for the Recently Deceased bag. Yet the play isn’t entirely child-friendly, so think twice before bringing anyone under tween age.
Through 11/19: Wed 2 and 7:30 PM, Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells, broadwayinchicago.com, $48-$136
It starts with death, like any self-respecting play around this time of year, but quickly dissolves into themes of loneliness and belonging wrapped in hearty sing-alongs. True to the original film in many ways, Beetlejuice features tap dancing, a few bracing jump scares, and ubiquitous cigarette smoke. It also adds some acrobatics in just for fun and, best of all, puppets (designed by Michael Curry). The crass demon Beetlejuice is ever present with the precise vocal fry of Michael Keaton, a tonal ploy not meant for musical crooning, but Justin Collette pulls it off somehow, adding his own signature comedy improv here and there. (Perhaps even more so in this era, we can readily recognize his bluster as akin to that of patriarchal man-babies we have known.) But the scene-stealer in this production is Lydia (played by Isabella Esler) whose Winona Ryder resemblance is uncanny and whose earthy voice anchors the whole show.
As for the plot, film critic Simona Luciani says it best in her essay in FashionXFilm: “Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988) is an ode to the unraveling of ‘good taste,’ revealing American culture’s limits and contradictions with stunning sets and gauche character design.” In that regard, the play truly upholds the spirit of the original, with stunning sets and talented actors making us gasp at their selfish or spooky actions. By unapologetically crossing the line with objectionable character behavior for 2023 (even for a demon), physical jokes around nonconsensual sexual advances land nasty. In the end, like any good fairy tale, Beetlejuice gets his comeuppance and is vanquished to hell, and the audience shakes it off to rejoice in the neat, happy reunion between the living and the dead.