Review: In ‘Beetlejuice,’ the Afterlife Is Exhausting

The dead lead lives of noisy desperation in “Beetlejuice,” the absolutely exhausting new musical that opened on Thursday at the Winter Garden Theater. This frantic adaptation of Tim Burton’s much-loved 1988 film is sure to dishearten those who like to think of the afterlife as one unending, undisturbed sleep.

Because as directed by a feverishly inventive Alex Timbers, and starring Alex Brightman as the manic ghoul of the title, this production proposes that not being alive just means that you have to try harder — a whole lot harder — than you ever did before. Otherwise, you’ll wind up invisible, with nary a soul to acknowledge your starry self. And in today’s world of chronic self-advertising, this may be the true fate worse than death.

Invisibility is definitely not among this show’s problems; overcompensating from the fear that it might lose an audience with a limited attention span is. Though it features a jaw-droppingly well-appointed gothic funhouse set (by David Korins, lighted by Kenneth Posner), replete with spooky surprises, this show so overstuffs itself with gags, one-liners and visual diversions that you shut down from sensory overload.

The sum effect suggests Disney World’s Haunted Mansion ride (and, hey, I’ve spent some very happy moments there) as occupied by an especially competitive meeting of the Friars Club. The industrious cast keeps spitting out spoken and sung jokes — good, bad and boring — at the velocity of those armies of bats that regularly swoop over the audience, summoned by the projection designer Peter Nigrini.

Mr. Burton’s original film, which cemented his reputation as a Hollywood moneymaker, divided critics when it first came out. (“About as funny as a shrunken head — and it happens to include a few,” Janet Maslin wrote in her review in The New York Times.)

Still, Mr. Brightman is so electrically, relentlessly on here that you wonder if he can sustain that level of all-out energy. As it turns out, Mr. Brightman and “Beetlejuice” can indeed sustain this anything-for-a-laugh intensity. And it is not a trait that benefits from prolonged exposure.

Nearly everything appears to be operating on the principle that it must somehow top what came before. So at the drop of a punch line, the show is suddenly crowded by throngs of ghostly cheerleaders, gospel singers, a dead football team (for a sequence set in hell), not to mention really big puppets (by Michael Curry). There’s even (no, please, make it stop!) a phalanx of cloned, dancing Beetlejuices. (The hyper choreography is by Connor Gallagher.)

This being a Broadway musical, “Beetlejuice” has been given a freshly broadened sentimental streak. There’s an enhanced treacly through line, at odds with the prevailing frat-house high jinks, about the search for family. At its center is the lonely, mom-missing Lydia, who resents that her dad, Charles (Adam Dannheisser) has taken up with Delia (Leslie Kritzer, taking zany to the max), a perky but insecure life coach.

In parts charmingly originated onscreen by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis, the house-haunting, newly dead young couple Adam and Barbara (the talented Rob McClure and Kerry Butler in thankless roles) are shown mourning the absence of the child they never got around to having while they were alive.

Ms. Caruso, the precocious teenage actress who was an incandescent presence in the David Bowie musical “Lazarus,” lacks the devilish, deadpan piquancy that Winona Ryder brought to the same role in the film. When this Lydia sings about a place called home, you can imagine what Britney Spears might have been like in the title role of “Annie.”

The music mostly exists in a loud, undifferentiated blur. That includes, I am sorry to say, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” in which the denizens of a dinner party find themselves possessed by a calypso spirit. In the film, the incongruity of stuffy, dressed-up philistines making like Jamaican backup dancers was a hoot.

Here, everybody, including every member of the support cast, has already gone so far over the top that there’s no room for comic contrast. The disheartening moral of “Beetlejuice” is that when anything goes, nothing much registers in the end.

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