It’s Almost Showtime for ‘Beetlejuice’ Musical in Pittsburgh


Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Bee …

Before “it’s showtime” in Pittsburgh, before summoning the fast-talking scoundrel from the Netherworld, let’s conjure a couple of the women who will soon be in Pittsburgh to deliver Beetlejuice, the musical based on the 1988 Tim Burton movie that starred the pride of Robinson Township, Michael Keaton, as the title rascal. 

Speaking by phone from Rochester, N.Y., the previous tour stop before resurrecting in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, were Broadway veteran and Carnegie Mellon alum Kate Marilley and newcomer Isabella Esler, a Californian who graduated from high school a year ago.

Starring in the national tour of Beetlejuice, from left, Britney Coleman (Barbara),
Will Burton (Adam), Isabella Esler (Lydia) and Justin Collette (Beetlejuice).
(All images by Matthew Murphy)

Marilley portrays a decidedly different Delia than the character portrayed by Catherine O’Hara in the movie. Maybe you recall that Delia, stepmother to Lydia Deetz (Esler), was preoccupied with her artistic ambitions. 

Noting that she was a huge fan of Burton’s and the film before seeing the show, Marilley said, “The stage version is quite a bit different. Delia is married to Charles Deetz and is Lydia’s stepmom, and she’s still eccentric, but the version on stage is more bohemian, more, ‘Make peace and love. Everything fine,’ until one big scene where she cracks because she hasn’t dealt with her own trauma.”

While goth girl Lydia stews over her absentee father’s actions soon after her mother’s death, this version of well-intentioned life coach Delia has a back story that makes her more empathetic toward the brooding Lydia.

The character is different in other ways – notably, the actress playing Delia. Marilley acknowledges the “brilliance” of O’Hara and Broadway’s Leslie Kritzer, but says she has felt lucky that the creative team has given her latitude to make the Delia of the tour her own.

Marilley’s recent turns on Broadway have been as a performer and understudy for Beth Leavel in The Prom and Carmen Cusack in Flying Over Sunset. She takes both experiences into the otherworldly world of Beetlejuice

“Your look at Dee Dee Allen in The Prom and it’s similar in humor and wackiness and out-thereness. That prepared me for Delia to, not toe the line, but cross kind of onto my own planet. In Flying Over Sunset, as a standby for the amazing Carmen Cusack, was a much more emotional journey. As Clare Boothe Luce, she never leaves the stage. That gave me the stamina for Delia.”

On the other side of the showbiz coin is Esler. In her first professional job, she is the co-lead of a national tour, of a show that comes with a ready-made fan base.

She describes the whole process that led from audition tape to the stage as “super surreal” and “exciting.” 

Isabella Esler as Lydia in Beetlejuice.

“I’m so lucky to have a cast and crew who are very supportive and guiding me along,” Esler said. ‘It was a little scary at first, to get used to this new kind of opportunity but I’ve learned to take moments in the show, just to take it all in. It’s such a fun, crazy show … it’s a fun time, every time.”

In the musical version of Beetlejuice, Lydia’s journey is front and center even more so than that of the Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis in the movie), a newly dead ghost couple who are displeased to see the Deetz family move into their home.

Beetlejuice is played on tour by Justin Collette, who had replaced Tony-nominee Alex Brightman in his other big Broadway role, as Dewey in The School of Rock.

In the musical, Esler’s Lydia and Collette’s Beetlejuice start out as a team, scheming in harmony.

“For sure, it focuses more on friendship and how they work together and cause all kinds of crazy things to happen,” Esler said.

For Esler, the biggest challenge has been Lydia’s journey as a teen grieving for her mother, disapproving of her father’s marriage and hellbent on creating mischief.

“She goes through a lot of emotions, which has been very interesting in understanding her character,” Esler said. “From the first rehearsals, I had to learn to navigate when she is excited and at her highest high and when she is at her lowest, and balance that out.”

For both Marilley and Esler, a high point of this journey is looking out at audiences who come prepared to show their appreciation – often, in outfits fit for a Beetlejuice  fan convention. 

“I’ve never been a part of a show where there was cosplay! The fans and audiences, from Paduka, Kentucky, where we did the very first preview, it was like a rock concert,” Marilley marveled. “I felt like I was Led Zeppelin! There was uproarious applause, and it’s been that way all through San Francisco, Cleveland, Detroit. Audiences. Once they are onboard with us, they are excited to see what we bring that is different from the movie and the Broadway company.”

Marilley’s own favorite Delia moment is a fan favorite as well – the dinner party scene and a song that will be forever associated with Beetlejuice.

“It is, of course,  the Banana Boat song moment,” Marilley said: “In the movie, when Catherine O’Hara sings, it’s Harry Belafonte’s voice coming out of her mouth. For me as Delia, it’s my voice – a possessed voice. That was daunting, it’s such an iconic moment. But I love it.”

Above: Kate Marilley and Jesse Sharp as Delia and Charles Deetz
in the tour of Beetlejuice.

Esler has a fondness for the special effects (no spoilers) and the opening number, Prologue: Invisible. In the musical, we don’t have to wait for Beetlejuice to be summoned. He’s right there at the beginning, letting us know what we are in for: 

There’s a funeral, and we meet Lydia at her lowest, feeling, “You’re invisible when you’re sad.”

Then up pops Beetlejuice to say,

“Holy crap, a ballad already?

And such a bold departure from the original source material!”

He proceeds to remind us, gleefully, that this is a show about death.

‘I would say you are going to laugh so much,” Esler said. “It’s a lot of chaos, but in the best way possible. It’s also surprisingly heartfelt, too.”

For fans of the movie and all things Tim Burton, there are enticing Easter eggs, even as the show veers from the original. The advice here is,  don’t get too hung up on the differences between the movie and the musical.

“If you’re interested in seeing a bunch of actors possessed by ghosts and how the mayhem ensues, then come to see us,” Marilley said. “You will see us utterly possessed, vocally, mentally, spiritually … you’ll get all that and more when you come to see us at the Benedum Center.”

Beetlejuice is presented by PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust at the Benedum Center, Downtown, February 21-26. Tickets and information: https://trustarts.org/production/81542/beetlejuice or call 412-456-4800.

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