Bobbing green strobe lights and eerie music playing as the audience fills seats are a harbinger of the off-beat adventure ahead, but nothing can truly prepare viewers for the inanity of a character self-described as “Ghost Zombie Jesus.”
Welcome to Beetlejuice!
The musical adaptation – truly, only the first act was adapted; the second offers plot deepening – of the 1988 Tim Burton movie, playing at the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC), is a two-and-a-half-hour rollercoaster ride with the gas pedal pushed to the floor as the audience jostles from one joke to the next in a blur.
From the minute Justin Collette, the wise-cracking Beetlejuice, takes the stage, alternating musically from ukulele plucking to head-banging metal riffs, it’s obvious this is not your average show.
Beetlejuice, “guide to the other side,” wants to return to the living, enlisting the help of a newly-deceased couple who hope to scare the living inhabitants out of their beloved home. When Lydia, the goth teen living in the house and mourning the death of her mother, can see the ghostly trio and realizes she can have them scare her father into moving, a diabolical plan is hatched.
Much of this is familiar to movie fans. The play then delves deeper with second-act musings on loneliness by new characters, added chemistry between Lydia and Beetlejuice, and a hair-raising trip to the Netherworld.
Beetlejuice has always been irreverent, but what parents need to know is this version is much edgier. Within minutes, Collette drops f-bombs that cause young fans to gasp and turn to parents in shock. Some lines and movements are sexual, while others, like “I’m powerless like a gay Republican” or “vanished like a cloud of dirty hipster vape,” might go right over kids’ heads but elicit laughs from their parents.
This wacky ghost story unfurls amid the magic of live theater, from robotic possession of guests at a dinner party – to the tune of “Day-O” – to the underworld monster Beetlejuice rides into the living room. Yet, even with fabulous mechanicals and special effects, one of the most impressive production decisions was to utilize the towering stage curtains for transition. During scene changes, curtains drop and video of blowing leaves or flocks of birds plays on them.
Collette proves an unhinged master of improv and physical comedy, bashing the fourth wall to work the audience for energy and inspiration as he prances about. His average singing voice seems secondarily important to the Michael Keaton-esque rasp he infuses for standard delivery.
The singing voice of Isabella Esler, making her Broadway debut as Lydia, is hauntingly beautiful. Her rendition of “Dead Mom” in Act I is clear and wrenching, and “Home” in Act II is sweetly stirring.
The other cast highlight is Kate Marilley’s take on Delia, Lydia’s life coach and future stepmother. Delia is ditzy and Marilley infuses a delightful level of physical humor.
Beetlejuice, which plays at PPAC through April 30, is fresh and fun, breaking stereotypes about ghosts with an irreverence that has audiences roaring.
Beetlejuice is at PPAC through Sunday, April 30. Tickets at ppacri.org