Maybe The Most Haunting Thing About "Beetlejuice," the 1988 Tim Burton movie that's premiered at the National Theater, is the creepy feeling of inspiration run amok. Why, you wonder, has a movie with such a witty visual virtuosity been re-engineered for such a crass and frantic crossover to the stage?
Well, part of the answer is structural: Michael Keaton and a little less dazzling antic mischievousness 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.
This now comes at you with some tiresome regularity in the overcaffeinated, overstuffed and virtually charmless version being readied for. Gags about erection 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. The movie's morbid laughter in the face of death has been replaced by juvenile tea-heeing at the ways Beetlejuice can shock the other characters with his bawdy naughtiness.
Tastelessness, of course, in the course of the "Beetlejuice" brand: The comic undergone by Burton's film has to be with the purchase of a quaint country house – Barbara and Adam Maitland – by a couple of urban city types with decorating ideas more grotesque than any 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 is scouting for the door.
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 interloper away – to Beetlejuice and Lydia, the emo daughter of the new owners. 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 is the shaky crux of the evening. (Note to sticklers: The character's name in the movie is Betelgeuse but it is spelled like the title in the musical's program.)
The way in which the movie material never creates 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 can 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. In the manner of Will Ferrell's wild-eyed Mugatu in "Zoolander.", Kelvin Moon Loh, in the manner of Will Ferrell's wild-eyed Mugatu in "The Zoolander," has been reimagined as a New Age life coach.
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 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 movie, and is received warmly in the National. (Somehow, though, while she's swathed by William Ivey Long, this Lydia does not come across as that strange and unusual.)
The Laughter of Recognition is perhaps Lost in 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 well-known 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 they pass 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 Burton's own macabre laboratory.
Before "Beetlejuice" makes its way to the Winter Garden Theater in March, though, a trip back to a lab where they will fix musicals may be in order.
Beetlejuice, music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect, 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 Theater, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. 202-628-6161 or thenationaldc.org,