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Stage Door: "Beetlejuice" and "Pretty Woman"

by Dancin' Dan

Adapting a non-musical film to a stage musical is always a dicey proposition. Leave the story exactly as is and just add songs, and you risk the show feeling rote and uninteresting. Change the story so that it fits a musical structure better, and you may alienate fans of the source material. This Broadway season has practically been a study in how to adapt a film to a musical. We’ve already talked about Tootsie, but this season saw three other screen-to-stage adaptations of varying levels of quality: BeetlejuiceKing Kong, and Pretty Woman: The Musical. Each has proven divisive in varying ways, and they had much different degrees of success with the Tony nominations. I’ve recently seen two of them, and what one lacks, the other has in spades...

The team behind Pretty Woman: The Musical decided to leave the film’s script as intact as possible, making sure to underline all of the film’s most famous lines and costumes. It’s an easy crowd-pleasing formula, especially since Pretty Woman the film is such a crowd-pleaser itself. The musical even lucked into a Julia Roberts-in-1990-type star, in the form of Samantha Barks. Ever since appearing as Eponine in the film version of Les Misérables, Barks has felt on the verge of superstardom, and by rights her performance as Vivian in Pretty Woman should push her over. She has the same effortless appeal as Roberts did in the film, and has a powerful voice that belies her small frame. She also manages to more than hold her own against her veteran co-stars, Orfeh (as Vivian’s best friend Kit) and Andy Karl (as business magnate and romantic interest Edward Lewis). It’s this trio, along with scene-stealer Eric Anderson in a dual role, that provides the best reason to see Pretty Woman: The Musical. The chemistry between Barks and Karl (one of the most swoon-worthy among the male Broadway stars) is off the charts, and Orfeh’s scene-stealer instincts and blow-the-roof-off-the-joint pipes are put to excellent use.

The show’s book, adapted by Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton from Lawton’s original screenplay, tries its best to reframe the story explicitly as a fairy tale, with a “follow your dreams” message that even these performers can’t quite put over. But where Pretty Woman: The Musical really falls down is its score, by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. Adams has always been a good pop songwriter, but just because you’re a great pop songwriter doesn’t mean you can write a musical. The set of songs Adams and Vallance have written here feel like cast-offs from Adams’s vast catalogue of pop hits; none of them feel particularly specific to these characters and this story, and most of them fly in one ear and out the other pleasantly enough, without sticking.

That's unfortunate, since the performers sure as hell knock the songs out of the park, but when the songs are as generic as “Anywhere But Here” and “Freedom”, there’s only so much charisma and great vocals can do. Pretty Woman: The Musical still works on a base level of pleasure (especially if you can sit close enough to see just how nicely Gregg Barnes’s costumes fit Andy Karl’s magnificent butt), but it’s cotton candy - as soon as it hits your mouth, it’s gone.

What Pretty Woman: The Musical lacks in the music department, though, Beetlejuice does not.

Right from the opening number, the monstrously clever lyrics by Eddie Perfect call out how very different the set-up is from the original source material. The song warns the audience to be ready for “a show about death,” and the rest of the show follows suit. This is one morbidly hilarious show, just like the film. But the book by Scott Brown and Anthony King has taken lots of liberties with the film’s screenplay, re-centering its story from the newly deceased Maitlands to the original goth girl Lydia Deetz, dealing with the death of her mother and navigating the relationships between herself, her father, and Delia - in this version a life coach hired by Charles Deetz to help both himself and Lydia cope.

The show’s biggest and smartest change is to promote the role of Beetlejuice to narrator. It’s a change that could have backfired, as a little of the “ghost with the most” goes a long way, but the show has an ace up its sleeve in Alex Brightman’s performance. Brightman is clearly having a blast playing the anarchic bio-exterminator, bounding around the stage with the indefatigable energy of a child who just ate all his Halloween candy in one go. He expertly navigates the abrupt tonal shifts in Perfect’s dynamic score and in Beetlejuice’s capricious, ever-changing moods with verve and unflagging professionalism, while making everything feel completely off-the-cuff. It’s a marvel of a performance, at once utterly contemporary and full of old-fashioned vaudevillian showmanship.

The rest of the cast isn’t slacking, either. Kerry Butler and Rob McClure offer sunshiny, yuppie hilarity as the Maitlands. Sophia Anne Caruso is a miniature powerhouse as Lydia, and if she occasionally feels more like she’s play-acting her state of Gothic depression than Winona Ryder did in the film, at least it fits with the musical’s tone and rejiggered story. The biggest scene-stealer after Brightman, though, is Leslie Kritzer as Delia. Kritzer nails every possible comic beat in her performance, especially in her hilarious duet with Lydia, “No Reason”. The show also keeps the film’s “Day-O” setpiece, giving Kritzer and Adam Dannheisser as Charles Deetz ample space for wacky physical comedy. It also gives the production design crew license to go extra wild, adding some fun, funny new horrors to terrorize the Deetzes and their dinner guests. In fact, the production design for the whole show is eye-popping , especially the sets, which take Bo Welch’s designs for the Tim Burton film and add hints of Edward Gorey’s gothic illustrations. Some may complain that this is all too much design, but there’s nothing else as imaginative and out-there as this on Broadway; I found it refreshing.

For all of the show’s hilarity and fun, though, fans of the film version of Beetlejuice may be left wanting by the end. The new storyline doesn’t really lead to much, partially because Lydia’s big second act solo is something of a let-down, and there’s disappointingly little time spent in the Netherworld with fan-favorite character Juno, played so memorably in the film by Sylvia Sidney (although most of the cleverly-designed dead from the film do make an appearance). But Beetlejuice does have the excitement of the new going for it - since the story has changed, there’s a thrilling sense of discovery lurking around every corner. The show is, simply put, fun. While Pretty Woman: The Musical feels like it’s going through the motions at every step, even when those motions don’t quite fit on stage, Beetlejuice is constantly finding ways to adapt itself to its new environment. It throws a lot at the wall to see what sticks, and a surprising amount of it does. Whether you’re a fan of the film or not, it’s worth seeing.

Tony Awards? Beetlejuice is nominated for eight Tonys, and already feels like something of an also-ran in the big ticket categories of Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book. But Alex Brightman could be a dark horse spoiler for Lead Actor in a Musical, and the show's very showy scenic, lighting, and sound design are all solid contenders. Not so much the show's costumes. Not when the legendary Bob Mackie is nominated for The Cher Show.

Current Tony-Nominated Shows Reviewed
Aint Too Proud to Beg
Burn This
The Cher Show
Hillary and Clinton
King Lear
The Prom

Last Season but Still Playing... 
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

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Reader Comments (3)

Curious: Are the ways Beetlejuice has been changed designed to sync a bit better with the animated show? If so, that might imply they have sequel plans, but they've decided adapting bits and pieces of the animated series is more fertile ground than doing a musical version of (ugh) the long rumoured Beetlejuice goes Hawaiian.

May 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Sorry but Julia Roberts in PW is Julia Roberts in PW.

May 21, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

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July 24, 2019 | Unregistered Commentersunny yadav

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