Britney Coleman (Barbara), Will Burton (Adam), Isabella Esler (Lydia) and Justin Collette
(Beetlejuice). All photos by Matthew Murphy.

Ghosts.  Dancing skeletons.  A giant toothy snake from Hell, like Saturday Night Live’s land shark on steroids. “The Handbook for the Recently Deceased.”  When the title character gleefully tells the audience that this is a play about death, he’s not kidding.  Fortunately, it’s all in good fun, and there is plenty of it in this delightfully camp musical adaptation of the highly successful 1988 comedy-horror film.

For those hoping for a repeat experience of the film, fear not.  Minor details are changed.  The owners of the creepy Connecticut country home die from electrocution rather than a car accident (easier to stage), and the interior decorator becomes a real estate investor, but macht nichts.  All the essential features remain, down to the hilarious use of retro calypso songs popularized by Harry Belafonte, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jump in Line (Shake Senora).”

Kate Marilley (Delia) and Jesse Sharp (Charles).

The premise is that after their deaths, Adam and Barbara want to keep their home for themselves, but it has been purchased by real estate developer Charles.  He moves in, accompanied by his gloomy Goth daughter, Lydia, who mourns for her deceased mother, and the ditsy Delia, whom Charles hired as a life coach for Lydia.  Delia also happens to be Charles’s mistress, and Lydia doesn’t like her at all.

Enter Beetlejuice, a demon from the Netherworld who conspires to re-enter the world of the living, using Delia, Adam, and Barbara to help him.  Meanwhile, these three become willing accomplices, relying on Beetlejuice’s Netherworldly skills to get Charles to abandon the house.

Isabella Esler (Lydia), Will Burton (Adam) and Britney Coleman (Barbara).

The success of the play hinges on a sensational performance by the actor playing Beetlejuice, and Justin Collette succeeds in spades.  Looking like a dirty, deranged convict in oversized clothes; with the wild gesticulations of a marionette gone mad; and the sandpaper voice of Harvey Fierstein, Collette is hysterical.  His lasciviousness is limitless (beware if you are offended by an abundance of X-rated profanity).  He supplicates and bamboozles to accomplish his goals, and his frequent breaking of the fourth wall yields great connection with the audience.

The rest of the cast is totally professional, as expected from a Broadway touring show, but two performers stand out.  Isabella Esler, who happens to be from San Jose, plays in her first ever professional performance, and remarkably, in a lead role.  She captures Lydia’s darkness nicely.  Interestingly, though dressed in black with all of the Goth trimmings, her makeup looks more ingenue, which allows for a more sympathetic characterization and the ray of hope in her personality.  She also displays a strong and versatile singing voice.

Justin Collette (Beetlejuice) and Tour Company of Beetlejuice.

Kate Marilley matches Collette’s over-the-top comic chops as Delia.  She mixes new age, self-help, sex pot, clueless, vibrant, needy, metaphor-spewing and more into one tremendously energetic and humorous performance.

The general storyline is a proven entity, and it works in this format.  With virtually nonstop schtick, no dead spots slow the action, but conversely deeper feelings about the characters or situations don’t have a chance to develop.  Several vignettes may seem superfluous, like the Miss Argentina from the Netherworld; the Girl Scout who has come to sell cookies; the game show with the team of skeletons; and the multiplying Beetlejuices, but each works as entertainment that fits the ghoulish theme.  Other diversions include metatheatrical references and a good chunk of social commentary that resonates with the audience. The catchy music contains lyrics that almost always reveal and propel the narrative.

Karmine Alers (Juno), Tour Company of Beetlejuice, Jesse Sharp (Charles) and Isabella
Esler (Lydia).

The rest of the creative side works in exemplary fashion.  Despite the many shifting venues required, the sets are appealing and convincing and the changes handled with dispatch, usually while brief scenes occur in front of the curtain.  Diverse costumery sparkles, and choreography is brisk.  Come one, come all, and if you want to be in the in crowd, don’t be afraid to dress in black and white stripes.

“Beetlejuice” with music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect, book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, and based on the movie of the same name, is presented by SF Broadway and performed at the Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA through December 31, 2022.

Little Shop of Horrors

Phil Wong as Seymour. All photos by Kevin Berne.

Okay – let’s cut straight to the chase.  The unique chronical of “Little Shop of Horrors” is laugh-out-loud funny; the music is foot-stomping energetic; the production is superb; and the performances are great.  Did I miss anything?  If you see this TheatreWorks production and disagree, check with your physician to make sure you have the pulse rate of a sentient being.

From its humble beginnings as a bargain basement budgeted B-film by Roger Corman in 1960, the cult favorite “Little Shop of Horrors” mutated into a Broadway musical after other iterations.  This production is set in San Francisco Chinatown, which allows the addition of a little local color on the stage, though nothing is changed in the text.

Nick Nakashima as Orin.

With its prologue and the orienting song “Skid Row (Downtown),” the audience is already hooked on a propulsive soundtrack and expecting that two hours of relentless entertainment will follow.  Alan Menken’s music and Howard Ashman’s lyrics stand on their own, but they add little lagniappes to many numbers with a sampling of period songs as well.  The refrain of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and the iconic guitar riff from The Knack’s “My Sharona” are the most obvious, but you wonder how many others the composers had fun coyly slipping in?  Do I detect a hint of “Beauty school dropout” from “Grease” or Dan Hill’s “Sometimes, when we touch” and more?  Or is it an illusion?

The opening numbers and several others are delivered by a trio of young women whose character names are Chiffon (portrayed by Alia Hodge), Crystal (Naima Alakham), and Ronette (Lucca Troutman).  For those familiar with ‘60s pop/rock music, perhaps you’ll see a naming theme!  You’ll also experience the sounds of a bluesy, doo wop, girl group on steroids.  They act as a Greek chorus, but you’ve never seen one with divas having such sass and attitude along with vocal skills to growl and howl with the best of them.  And they shake their booties as well.

The basic premise is that Seymour (Phil Wong), a nebbish who works in Mr. Mushnik’s (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias) failing florist shop on Skid Row, inadvertently fosters a plant akin to a gigantic Venus fly trap.  He names the plant Audrey II, after Audrey (Sumi Yu), the other employee in the shop, whom he secretly loves.  The plant grows and grows and becomes such an attraction that the florist business booms, and Seymour becomes a celebrity.  The problem is that Audrey II’s growth was initially promoted by  the accidental dripping of Seymour’s blood onto the plant.  As a result, Audrey II develops a taste for human flesh, and as it grows and acquires language and singing abilities, so do its incessant and hilarious demands to “Feed me.”  So, how do you satisfy an insatiable carnivore?

Lucca Troutman as Ronette, Alia Hodge as Chiffon, Naima Alakham as Crystal.

The hapless Seymour, beset by one challenge after another, cuts a sympathetic figure whom you hope will get things right.  A wonderful talent as a comic, Wong even manages to get laughs with simple reaction looks in a 425-seat house.  But he sings surprisingly well also.  In a secondary plot, Orin (Nick Nakashima), a narcissistic dentist becomes Seymour’s nemesis, not just because he is Audrey’s boyfriend, but because he is sadistic and abuses her.  Nakashima plays Orin with flamboyant glee, seemingly channeling, in look and style, a misogynistic Andrew Dice Clay.  He forever inhales nitrous oxide and laughs like a giddy hyena while flailing around, fitting for the threat he represents.

Scenic Designer Christopher Fitzer’s revolving set highlights a strong staging effect.  Of course, the unique star is Audrey II, who starts as a table top plant and grows large enough to capture two human beings in its vast, craving, red fur-lined mouth, with a lewd, dangling tongue.  Brandon Leland acts as the puppetry manipulator and the powerful pipes of Katrina Lauren McGraw as the savage and flesh lusting voice.  All of the production pieces are adeptly coordinated by Director Jeffrey Lo.

Sumi Yu as Audrey, Phil Wong as Seymour, Lawrence-Michael C. Arias as Mr. Mushnik.

For those looking for some deeper meaning in the narrative, “Little Shop of Horrors” can be viewed as a slam on capitalism as cash register ring becomes an obsession, or perhaps a repudiation of the gentrification of traditional neighborhoods as the shop renovates to serve a customer base outside of its home turf.  Certainly, the abusive relationship of Orin toward Audrey could be viewed in light of toxic masculinity.  The viewer can make those inferences, but in all likelihood, the author was just looking to tell a funny story with a bit of spine-tingling horror to distinguish it.  It works.

“Little Shop of Horrors,” with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, is based on the film of the same name by Roger Corman, and plays at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through December 24, 2022.

Wuthering Heights

Liam Tamne as Heathcliff, Leah Brotherhead as Catherine. All photos by Kevin Berne.

A great many of today’s theater goers are “of a certain age.”  They (ahem – we!) may have first experienced the original source material of Emily Brontë’s novel “Wuthering Heights” as a physical book in paper and ink as a teen or young adult.  Most of us stage lovers cut our teeth on the silver screen, and our touchstone is the unsurpassable classic 1939 black-and-white film.  Lawrence Olivier commanded the screen in an idol-making performance as the handsome, brooding Heathcliff, and the beautiful, conflicted Merle Oberon engendered our obloquy for making a mating decision based on the social standing of birthright rather than true love.

In my early years, I wondered why re-makes are made.  I finally realized that it was rarely because the producers thought that a new version would be better, but that it would be different and would reach a new audience while making money, of course.  So it is with Adaptor/Director Emma Rice’s stage interpretation of this tale of star-crossed love.  This rendering must be measured by a very different yardstick than traditional versions.  By a calculation based on contemporary sensibilities, Rice’s innovation succeeds in providing a multifaceted entertainment executed with top rate professionalism.

Jordan Laviniere as Leader of the Yorkshire Moors (center).

Although this Gothic novel is grounded in drama, the current version is flippant – a totally accomplished stage version that plays largely for wows and belly laughs.  At first, it seems like it may be too silly.  The opening sequence, when a Mr. Lockwood arrives at Wuthering Heights in the Yorkshire Moors during a storm, is so farcical as to be over-the-top.  For instance, the visitor is held horizontally by other actors to simulate the effect of gale-force wind.  Happily, the play settles into a merely raucous, but sustainable tone.  Although many diversions are on display for entertainment value and to demonstrate irreverence, the narrative is pretty faithfully revealed.

The story is divulged in flashback.  The brutish Heathcliff was abused by an adoptive family after the death of the kind head of household.  Despite stepsister Catherine’s fractiousness, she and Heathcliff love one another, but because of his low status, she marries the landed Edgar.  Unhappiness ensues for all.

Leah Brotherhead as Catherine, Liam Tamne as Heathcliff.

The scene is set with action playing out on a bare stage having open wings.  Minimal props, such as a free-standing door set, are wheeled in as needed.  Actors wear an omnium gatherum of mostly contemporary rags (literally, as well as figuratively).  As a plot device, a Greek chorus characterized as The Yorkshire Moors helps advance the story.

Consistent with the abstraction of the staging, animals are represented through puppetry operated on sticks by actors.  Snapping skulls represent dogs, and flopping books act as birds.  Another conceit used to humorous effect is portable blackboards.  Why, you ask? The family histories are so convoluted and the deaths of characters so frequent that the visual notations in chalk help the viewer keep a scorecard.

A band of several, mostly string players, is scattered around the stage periphery throughout.  Ian Ross’s always interesting original music helps propel the plotline.  With an eclectic mix of British folk, pop, and other influences, it acts as a major driver in enlivening the feel of the production.  Unfortunately, much nuance that the lyrics would provide is lost as they are often indecipherable.

Sam Archer as Edgar, Leah Brotherhead as Catherine.

Performances, including acting, singing, and dancing, are superb.  However, many actors play multiple roles, so keeping characters straight is challenging.  As Heathcliff, Liam Tamne cuts a striking figure.  Swarthy and charismatic, he dominates his scenes as a sneering tiger of a man, relentless in his goals and contemptuous of obstacles.  One curious affectation is that his voice is often Indian accented.  And though a romanticized possible backstory suggests that Heathcliff may have been a lost young prince from an exotic land like India or China, he arrived in Yorkshire at an early age and would certainly have lost any previous accent.

Leah Brotherhead portrays his counterpart, and she stomps the stage as well.   Her Catherine is no shrinking violet, but rather is demonstrative and tempestuous.  The actor’s high energy extends to singing also, and Brotherhead possesses a dark and gruff vocal instrument that is put to good use.

Emma Rice’s distinction has arisen from innovative, subversive, and often inauthentic interpretations of literature.  She is no stranger to Berkeley Rep, having imported and directed other productions, “The Wild Bride” being a personal favorite.

Leah Brotherhead as Catherine, Liam Tamne as Heathcliff, Jordan Laviniere as Leader of the Yorkshire Moors.

For those wanting something akin to past experience, be forewarned, this is not your father’s “Wuthering Heights.” To open Act 2, Heathcliff even breaks the fourth wall to ask, if not taunt, the audience with the question, “What did you expect?”  This prompts the reflection that personal enjoyment often derives from how experience compares with expectation.  Audience members who are unfamiliar with Brontë’s novel, as well as those who do know it but are willing to take a deep dive into a radical revision of “Wuthering Heights,” should find this a highly engaging evening.

“Wuthering Heights” is adapted by Emma Rice from the novel by Emily Brontë, presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and plays on its Roda Stage at 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA through January 1, 2023.