Once upon a time back in 1988, Tim Burton made a quirky but charming little movie about a couple who gradually make the discovery that they are deceased and work to learn how to scare away the unwanted living inhabitants who have moved into their home. The title character is not even seen until halfway into the film and the hijinks he provides are sparing. A little bit of Beetlejuice goes a long way.
Gut that story, take away all the heart and soul of the property and fill the evening with overblown songs that stop the action rather than advance it and you have “Beetlejuice” the musical. Substitute an in-your-face Beetlejuice as a relentlessly present emcee full of gags, one-liners, smoke and mirrors. And strobe lights. Oh, and let’s be self-referential throughout, vulgar and sophomoric. And regularly ridicule the very genre that the show aspires to rise to, i.e., the musical—“fuck ‘Brigadoon!’”—but then set such a low bar that “Brigadoon” seems like Shakespeare by comparison.
The overall effect is like a theme-park attraction that won’t die.
The good news here is that “Beetlejuice” represents a welcome return of musicals to the Auditorium Theatre, a cultural jewel that is radically underused. There were sound issues opening night that muddled much of the dialogue and rattled the rafters with distortion, but those are issues of how to tame amplification in an acoustic gem of a venue that can be worked through.
And kudos to a strong cast that does its best to rescue an overinflated and tedious show. It is mind-blowing to think that Britney Coleman, starring in the cerebral “Company” a few blocks away, had come from “Beetlejuice” to join that national tour. (Yes, a “Company” joke remains in “Beetlejuice.”)
It is also impossible not to imagine how readily this show could have worked had it placed as high a priority on content as it does on gimmicks.
A veteran colleague who attended put it in a nutshell at intermission: “Everything else I have ever seen just moved up a notch.”
“Beetlejuice” at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Ida B. Wells. Tickets available at broadwayinchicago.com. Through November 19.