Sometimes a critic has to admit defeat.
While it was frustrating to lose so decisively to a narcissistic demon dressed in a prisoner’s outfit, with a crude sense of humor and the worst goblin haircut since Drew in “Rock of Ages,” this battle is over.
On. To use a football analogy: This is “Beetlejuice” 1, critics 0.
I couldn’t stand “Beetlejuice the Musical” On Broadway in 2019. “Beetlejuice stinks,” I wrote. “And make sure you don’t bring the kids out drinking.”
My objections? Ah, an incoherent and crude book, an Act 2 that makes no sense, lots of crude and tasteless jokes about “Scary Old Men” and so on, a hackneyed Eddie Perfect score, messy staging and over-the-top performances. I saw it as the poster child for why highly stylized films directed by auteurs like Tim Burton are rarely good choices for musical adaptations. In Stephen Sondheim’s words, they are hat after hat.
And all you need is that first chapeau.
I was not alone in my hatred; There were others in my corner. But the curtain was still rising on the packed “Beetlejuice” houses each night. Even more incredible was that the show even came back from the dead during a COVID-19 crisis that left half of Broadway shows in production.
After closing in March 2020, “Beetlejuice” answered the popular call and reopened in 2022. It even moved to Broadway theaters, a rare and costly move that producers often resist, and ran for another nine months.
Fast forward to Wednesday at the Auditorium Theatre, a beautiful but lightly booked venue that hasn’t seen a Broadway tour since before the pandemic. That’s because although Broadway host Broadway in Chicago has a deal with the Auditorium, it only rents it when other theaters are full. (Currently Loop has “Company,” “Hamilton,” and “Boop! The Betty Boop Musical,” huzzah).
The whole place was packed to the gills (and that’s a long way in this venue). Spectators came dressed as Lydia Deetz, who looked like Wednesday Adams, both from the Maitlands and the big kahuna herself. In every shade of the rainbow.
Every crude crack in Scott Brown and Anthony King’s book was greeted with squeals of delight, and the shrunken-headed puppet (which, I must admit, is cool) was greeted as if she were Taylor Swift standing in the waiting line in Buenos Aries.
A spectator-narrator in the seat next to me shouted, “Great!”, “Terrible!” he kept saying. or “Creepy!” as if it were a recording on repeat. And from the back rows my left ear was filled with these voices: “Wow, wow, they haven’t even been to the land of the dead yet.” I don’t need my house destroyed to know which way the wind is blowing.
People love this movie. People love this musical.
Secondly, it’s the praise of a touring cast that stars Justin Collette alongside three very strong women, as well as you-know-who: the lively (yes, lively) Megan McGinnis playing Barbara, Kate Marilley essentially getting the one-note Delia. and most of all, Isabella Esler, who will sweep you off your feet with her role as our Lydia in Power Ballads.
An incredibly young talent, Esler has just graduated from high school. What fun it was to watch him lean into the Auditorium’s famous acoustics and let it all rip. He’s so good he almost made sense out of his show.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Beetlejuice” (2.5 stars)
When: Until November 19
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive
Working time: 2 hours 45 minutes
Tickets: $55 at 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com