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What Broadway’s Two Very Different Shows About Death Teach Us About Life

A musical adaptation of Beetlejuice and Gary, Taylor Mac’s comedic sequel to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, both tackle what most of us would choose to avoid

beetlejuice broadway musical, alex brightman

Sophia Anne Caruso (left) as Lydia and Alex Brightman as Beetlejuice in 'Beetlejuice,' a new musical on Broadway.

Matthew Murphy

“Welcome to a show about death!” the ebullient chorus of “mourners” sings. Then Beetlejuice — as interpreted for the stage by actor Alex Brightman, as a shameless, gravelly voiced vaudevillian huckster — reiterates in his own gleefully glib way: “That’s the thing with life, no one makes it out alive!”

This opening number, “The Whole ‘Being Dead’ Thing,” gives audiences permission to laugh at their own mortality and have a little fun when it comes to rotting while others are grieving. It also serves as a blunt declaration that this is going to be a departure from the original source material — Tim Burton’s iconic 1988 movie comedy that became a cult hit and served as inspiration for a generation of teen goths.

A joyful musical that celebrates death and the afterlife may seem like an odd mixture for audience entertainment, but black humor has long been an antidote to the venom of reality and Eddie Perfect’s wild and witty lyrics keep returning to existential minefields. While fans will be glad to see the dinner party scene in which all those gathered begin to sing and dance to “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” — yes at least one shrimp cocktail comes to life to grab an actor’s face and other objects become animated puppets to terrorize — the two best songs are reserved for the second act when we finally get a glimpse at the characters in the Netherworld (don’t fret, the hunter with the shrunken head appears for a song-and-dance number).

“Creepy Old Guy” has sad teen Lydia — back from the Netherworld — taking control of her destiny by deciding to marry Beetlejuice and skewering all the skeezy men who salivate over young women as sexual conquests. The ditty is a savvy way for the adaptation to handle an uncomfortable scenario from the movie that is even more problematic for 21st Century audiences watching in the woke Me Too era.

Before that delicious moment, however, we’re treated to Miss Argentina, who was little more than a green-skinned sight gag in the original. As a beauty pageant winner who died by suicide, she’s now empowered with insight into the afterlife. In her song, “What I Know Now,” actress Leslie Kritzer sings: “If I knew then what I know now, I would have laughed and danced and lanced every sacred cow I thought I knew, but I was wrong ‘cause life is short, but death is super long.” It’s a lively tune with a lesson: to value what we have while we’re alive or, as Perfect wrote so succinctly in the opening number: “We shoulda carpe’d way more diems/Now we’re never gonna see ’em.”

Beetlejuice: 3.5/5 stars

While the tourists who will inevitably flock to Beetlejuice may enjoy the jovial air surrounding the morbidity put to music, they may not be prepared for the “ooze of life” that is piled up on the nearby stage for Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus. No one knows how to create a beautiful mess quite like creative genius Taylor Mac, and he doesn’t disappoint with his weird, sexy, uncomfortable romp through Titus’ bloody banquet room.

When the curtain raises, we’re confronted with piles of bodies (mostly nude) after the Shakespearean massacre and three oddball characters played by Nathan Lane (a clown who wants to be a fool), Kristine Nielsen (a maid tasked with sorting the dead) and Julie White (a hysterical midwife with huge regrets). All three are exquisite — corpses and all.

Nathan Lane stars in 'Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus' on Broadway

Nathan Lane stars in ‘Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus’ on Broadway.

This is a comedic look at the gruesome side of death by way of existential humor — a mixture of Beckett, commedia dell’arte, Theatre of the Ridiculous and more — that won’t sit well with some. “It’s just 90 minutes of fart jokes,” one friend commented, clearly not impressed. And I don’t blame him: the blood and piss and flatulence and other bodily excretions that can’t be ignored are on full display. And Mac manages to make a joyful playpen of weirdness from all the realities often considered shameful.

Rather than wallow in embarrassment, Nielsen’s character calls it a “puppetry of the cadavers” as Lane jerks off a corpse. The bonkers burlesque heightens as the three devise an over-the-top performance that culminates in a chorus line of big-dicked centurions who frolic with erect penises that the threesome hopes will right all that is wrong with the world.

I’ve followed Taylor Mac’s work since he was fearlessly exploring the edge of strangeness in Red Tide Blooming in the East Village and strumming his ukulele to his song about Lynne Cheney and her fictional romance with Saddam Hussein, but I never imagined that he would get a chance to celebrate his freakhood on Broadway. This sort of wacky, wonderful production isn’t typically presented to mainstream audiences, but I’m so thrilled the world has flipped enough to let it be so. It’s the reason live theater persists: to imagine and confront the realities of life, and death, that we typically avoid at all costs.

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus: 4/5 Stars

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