Maybe the most haunting thing about “Beetlejuice,” the new musical version of the 1988 Tim Burton movie that is having its world premiere at the National Theatre, is the creepy feeling of inspiration run amok. Why, you wonder, has a film with such witty visual virtuosity been re-engineered for such a crass and frantic crossover to the stage?
Well, part of the answer is structural: In greatly expanding the spotlight on the title character — played to scabrous delight in the film by Michael Keaton and with somewhat less dazzling antic mischievousness now by Alex Brightman — there is a larger narrative vacuum to be filled with a certain aspect of the story. That would be Beetlejuice’s sophomoric bathroom humor and phallic jokes.
These now come at you with some tiresome regularity in the overcaffeinated, overstuffed and virtually charmless version being readied for Broadway in a tryout that marked its official opening Sunday. Gags about erections and a fear of ghosts that can lead to brown stains in your undershorts — and wait for the cooked-pig puppet to spring to life with a certain body part springing up along with it — are the rule. The movie’s morbid laughter in the face of death has been replaced by juvenile tee-heeing at the ways Beetlejuice can shock the other characters with his bawdy naughtiness.
Tastelessness, of course, is built into the “Beetlejuice” brand: The comic undergirding of Burton’s film has to do with the purchase of a quaint country house — formerly owned by recently deceased Barbara and Adam Maitland — by a couple of urbane city types with decorating ideas more grotesque than any fiend could scare up. But the attempt by book writers Scott Brown and Anthony King to keep up with contemporary pop culture’s ever lower standards for comedy leads in some foul directions. I’m not sure a Girl Scout selling cookies door to door being chased by male specters with tongues hanging out is quite the knee-slapper it is intended to be.
For the stage, director Alex Timbers and his creative team, which also includes Australian songwriter Eddie Perfect, have shifted the central axis of the story from the Maitlands — who return as ghosts to try to frighten the interlopers away — to Beetlejuice and Lydia, the emo daughter of the new owners. As embodied by the appealing Sophia Anne Caruso, Lydia in this version is obsessed with mortality and the afterlife because she misses her mother, who died six months earlier. Her more formidable alliance here with the ghoul Beetlejuice (whose own quest concerns a return to human form and thereby to be noticed) is the shaky crux of the evening. (Note to sticklers: The character’s name in the film is Betelgeuse but it is spelled like the title in the musical’s program.)
The ways in which Timbers and company try to massage the movie material never create a convincing argument for “Beetlejuice” as a musical. The cartoonish dimensions of the supporting adult characters have been pumped up, to the point where you recognize them chiefly as those perky bundles of generalized neuroses who tend to populate vehicles like this. The talents of Kerry Butler and Rob McClure (as the Maitlands) as well as Adam Dannheisser and Leslie Kritzer (as Charles and Delia, the new owners) are apparent — and wasted. For reasons known only to the creative team, the movie’s Otho, an amusingly insufferable decorator, has been reimagined as a New Age life coach, played by Kelvin Moon Loh, in the manner of Will Ferrell’s wild-eyed Mugatu in “Zoolander.”
Perfect’s predictably peppy pop score contains a couple of serviceable power ballads for Caruso and a few curveballs: A boy-band parody number in the Netherworld feels about as 2018 as an episode of “Friends.” The spontaneous applause moments are predictable, too, as they tend to quote the film. Lydia’s memorable declaration — “I myself am strange and unusual” — comes from a line Winona Ryder uttered in the film, and is received warmly in the National. (Somehow, though, while she’s swathed ultra-gothlike by costume designer William Ivey Long, this Lydia doesn’t come across as all that strange and unusual.)
The laughter of recognition is perhaps loudest near the end of Act 1, with the re-creation of one of the movie’s best bits: the dinner party scene, during which the ghosts reveal the full scale of their power by taking momentary possession of the guests’ bodies, and forcing them to perform a herky-jerky rendition of the Jamaican folk song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” It’s a successfully kooky interlude in the movie, partly because the guests all channel the singer’s calypso-proficient voice. It’s just less funny when the actors sing it themselves.
David Korins’s main sets — three incarnations of the Maitlands’ house as it passes from their hands, to the interlopers’ and finally to Beetlejuice’s — are suitably eye-filling. And the giant sandworm and other puppets by Michael Curry that show up for cameos are expertly replicated from Burton’s own macabre laboratory.
Before “Beetlejuice” makes its way to the Winter Garden Theatre in March, though, a trip back to a lab where they fix musicals may also be in order.
Beetlejuice, music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect, book by Scott Brown and Anthony King. Directed by Alex Timbers. Choreography, Connor Gallagher; orchestrations, Kris Kukul; sets, David Korins; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Peter Hylenski; projections, Peter Negrini; puppets, Michael Curry; special effects, Jeremy Chernick; illusions, Michael Weber; physical movement coordinator, Lorenzo Pisoni. With Jill Abramovitz, Danny Rutigliano, Dana Steingold, Johnny Brantley III, Ryan Breslin, Elliott Mattox, Ramone Owens, Devin L. Roberts. About two hours 40 minutes. Tickets: $54-$114. Through Nov. 18 at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. 202-628-6161 or thenationaldc.org.