The touring production arrived at Broadway in Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre shortly after in-person performances returned and a few days before the city’s mask mandate was lifted. We could finally see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, but the world was still reeling. Here’s what I wrote about that show on Feb. 23, 2022:
“Something special happened at the opening of Come From Away… At an uncertain time, this 9/11 story resonated with and lifted up a masked audience hungry to return to normal while coping with profound loss and societal upheaval. The perfect show for this moment.”
In its own twisted way, the national tour of Beetlejuice, which opened Wednesday at the Auditorium Theatre for a brief run, is the perfect show for the current moment, when many folks want to bury memories of the pandemic as deeply as possible. As with the last post-pandemic Roaring ’20s, people are out for a cathartic good time after several grim years. (That was Congresswoman Lauren Boebert’s story, anyway, when she got ghostbusted out of a recent Denver performance of this production for excessive vaping and vamping.)
As the uncouth, undead and unrepentant titular character notes up top as he mocks the mourners at a nice woman’s graveside service, we’re all gonna die, so it’s fine–even healthy–to laugh at a show about death. Damn right, Mr. Juice! was the energy in the audience, which included more amped-up people in black-and-white stripes than a Footlocker outlet in a prison.
Beetlejuice himself, played with horny, fourth-wall-breaking abandon by Justin Collette, is relentlessly entertaining as he mines the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink book by Scott Brown and Anthony King. As Lydia, the teenage girl angrily mourning the loss of her mother even as she becomes Beetlejuice’s connection to the living world, Isabella Esler provides the heartfelt emotional stakes needed to leaven the coarse proceedings.
Esler, making her professional debut on this tour fresh out of high school, also proves a deft scene partner for BJ while showcasing fine singing chops. Hers is the only character–aside from head underworld bureaucrat Juno (Kris Roberts, who also deviled-hams it up as Maxine Dean) and the shrunken-head guy–who can hold her own with the rotting dead dude in the garish striped suit.
But the dynamic between these two is more than enough to carry the show past the mercifully short stretches focused on Barbara (Megan McGinnis) and Adam (Will Burton), the boring, recently deceased couple who stick around the house they were renovating and try to scare off the newly arrived Charles (Jesse Sharp), Delia (Kate Marilley) and Lydia so they can putter around the empty rooms for eternity.
All of these actors do a fine job–especially Marilley, who’s a hoot as the hot-to-trot New Agey stepmom–but their stories simply pale in comparison to that of the pale-faced trickster who’s unleashed by Lydia saying his name three times in a row. (The dinner party “Day-O” set piece lifted from the Tim Burton movie remains fun.)
Collette (who played Dewey Finn in School of Rock on Broadway) slays in the role of Beetlejuice with a powerhouse combo of wisecracks (he’s as invisible as a gay Republican!), contorted facial expressions, energetic physical comedy and total commitment to belting out songs from Eddie Perfect’s score (especially “That Whole ‘Being Dead’ Thing” and “That Beautiful Sound”) in a gravelly tenor.
If you want a night off from the many cares of this world, Beetlejuice will lift your spirits. Just remember to leave your vape pen at home.
Beetlejuice runs through November 19 at the Auditorium Theatre (and will make another Chicago stop May 21-26, 2024, at Broadway in Chicago’s Nederlander Theatre).
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Matthew Murphy