This drinking toast roughly translated as “Live Forever!” gets repeated throughout Death Becomes Her, a campy new musical adaptation of Universal Pictures’ 1992 film comedy. This fantasy flick by director Robert Zemeckis famously deployed all kinds of Academy Award-winning special effects to transform Oscar-winners Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn into rival Looney Tunes characters who did horrific bodily harm to each other after they both quaffed down an eternal life elixir.

Death Becomes Her has been previewing in an out-of-town tryout at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre since April 30, and it features a savvy updated book by sitcom stalwart Marco Pennette (Ugly Betty, Caroline in the City) with a peppy, cinematic score by off-Broadway songwriters Julia Mattison and Noel Carey (Is Anyone Alive Out There?). The buzz around Death Becomes Her has been so positive that the show’s sole corporate producer, Universal Theatrical Group, announced a fall New York transfer to Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre nearly a week before Chicago theater critics could pass judgment at the musical’s official press opening on Sunday, May 19.

Now opera fans could easily mishear the Death Becomes Her exhalations of “Sempre viva!” as Violetta Valery’s Act I credo “Sempre libera!” (“Always Free”) from Verdi’s La traviata. And coincidentally, it’s another V-V named character in Death Becomes Her who is also the Faustian purveyor of the “Sempre viva!” toast: the scheming beauty Viola Van Horn who selectively shares her eternal life elixir to ensnare adherents into her elite undead cult.

But for die-hard opera fans, Death Becomes Her will mostly bring to mind Leos Janacek’s 1926 operatic adaptation of Karel Capek’s 1922 play Vec Makropulos (often translated as The Makropulos Case or The Makropulos Affair). Both Death Becomes Her and Vec Makropulos explore fantastical what-if scenarios of stage divas who are blessed/cursed by a life-extending elixir.

Of the two, Vec Makropulos is understandably the more mysterious and intellectually serious. Vec Makropulos slowly reveals its details about a world-weary 337-year-old Greek opera diva who always goes by the initials E.M., but changes names as she disappears and reemerges throughout time.

Nearing the expiration date of her father’s death-defying formula, E.M. is forced to face up to her messy romantic past. In her wake, E.M. has created decades of bureaucratic inheritance litigation and uncomfortably experiences genealogical Oedipal Complex perplexities.

By contrast, Death Becomes Her is far more concerned with slapstick Fun! Fun! Fun! and comic Camp! Camp! Camp! While Vec Makropulos becomes a tragic end-of-life rumination of a centuries-old singing survivor, Death Becomes Her is content just to be a surface farce of pettiness, jealousy and revenge among newly minted eternal divas locked in a love triangle.

The musical opens with a prologue where a sexy and scantily-clad chorus introduces their leader: the statuesque Viola Van Horn (immortalized on screen by Isabella Rossellini and embodied onstage by Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child girl group fame). Viola not only outlines the existence of her eternal life elixir with spooky music that wouldn’t feel out of place in Kiss of the Spider Woman The Musical, she also wears the first of many eye-popping bejeweled gowns by costume designer Paul Tazewell that would be the envy of any finalist on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

We then catch an over-the-top Broadway production number that in the film allowed Meryl Streep as the self-obsessed actress Madeline Ashton to sing a song called “Mefrom an ill-conceived musical adaptation of Tennessee Williams‘s Sweet Bird of Youth. Onstage, the show-within-a-show has been generically renamed Me! Me! Me! and it’s all blatant pandering to gay men as NBC-TV Smash star and Noises Off! Tony Award-nominee Megan Hilty gleefully assumes the shallow mantle of Madeline Ashton.

Singing a song with a repeated lyric along the lines of “I Do Anything for the Gays” (no song list was included in the tryout Playbill), Hilty then cycles through various 20th century Broadway and Hollywood divas and their iconic costumes. This number also introduces some body double trickery that not only allows for extra time to do costume changes, it also foreshadows an amazing Act I finale staircase falling effect that’s credited to the “Illusion Design” of Rob Lake.

The show’s main romantic rivalry is spelled out next in Madeline’s dressing room. Her longtime friend/enemy is the writer Helen Sharp, initially played in deliberately dowdy mode in the film by Goldie Hawn and onstage by hilarious two-time Tony Award-nominee Jennifer Simard (Company, Disaster!).

Helen thinks she can make Madeline jealous by showing off her virtuous fiance, a jet-setting plastic surgeon named Ernest Menville who specializes in repairing cleft palates and other charity medical work. Bruce Willis played Ernest in the film, while two-time Tony Award-nominee Christopher Sieber (Spamalot, Shrek the Musical) does great supporting work onstage.

Naturally, Madeline immediately sets her sights on stealing Ernest away from Helen. Not only will she spitefully cut down her less-famous friend, Madeline eagerly anticipates having discount in-house access to all of her future plastic surgery needs.

Act I of Death Becomes Her is a rollicking delight thanks to such masterful musical comedy pros who can deliver both great comic timing and also sing up a storm with Mattison and Carey’s enjoyable score.

Simard’s deadpan delivery is perfect, especially when her Helen bitterly and sarcastically descends into obsessive vengeance mode. Hilty is also a consistent joy as she leans into Madeline’s gleeful superficiality and subsequent aging insecurities.

This is especially true when Simard’s Helen reemerges with a best-selling self-help book and a physical glow-up that threatens to eclipse Madeline’s starry self. Is it any wonder that Madeline seeks the supernatural quick-fix help offered up by the mysterious Viola?

In transforming the original Death Becomes Her screenplay by Martin Donovan and David Koepp, Pennette wisely creates many of his own comic zingers instead of just stealing what was laid down on celluloid. But Pennette knows to keep a few choice cinematic one-liners, especially after Madeline gulps down Viola’s eternal elixir and proclaims: “Now A Warning!?” (this line appears on select Death Becomes Her souvenir T-shirts).

Yet, Act II of Death Becomes Her is a much bumpier ride. That’s despite several clever violent visual gags as Madeline and Helen wage physical war on each other. It’s all a great team effort of designers Tazewell, Lake, lighting designer Justin Townsend and scenic designer Derek McLane (who uses an elegant mix of Egyptian/Gothic physical scenery with perfectly timed projections).

Despite their acknowledgment of their very violent actions, the quick Act II reconciliation between Madeline and Helen felt far too rushed. And I also missed all the macabre film humor of Ernest becoming California’s top mortician rather than just staying a plastic surgeon in the musical.

This career switch removes one of the film’s juicier plot revelations. That’s when Viola acknowledges that the only reason she allowed Madeline and Helen to join her eternal fold was so that they all could benefit from the upkeep of Ernest’s artistic expertise at making the dead appear lifelike. Without this scheming motivation for Viola, there isn’t much for Williams to dramatically do with Pennette’s script other than to look fabulous and to sing the hell out of her songs.

Though Sieber doesn’t get as much stage time as his leading ladies, he does get a big Act II motivational (and hallucinatory) number as Ernest tipsily steels up his courage to help Madeline and Helen to become whole again. There’s a surprising visual button for this number, but it feels like songwriters Mattison and Carey need to fine-tune it even more to get the maximum comedy mileage out of the song.

With Death Becomes Her, Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Newsies) is adding on the title of first-time Broadway director on top of all his duties in designing the show’s many dances. What Gattelli accomplishes is all very respectable and fast-paced, though there are moments in Act II where it’s clear that the chorus is dancing as vamping to cover for the next complicated scenic or costume change.

Though its transformation from screen to stage isn’t perfect just yet, Death Becomes Her certainly can be celebrated for all of its campy humor. And it’s also heartening to see how the musical is unabashedly acknowledging the many LGBTQ+ audiences who will likely lap it all up.

As a contemporary stage comedy in the tradition of The Producers and Urinetown, Death Becomes Her fits into the category of musicals brazenly operating in a self-aware mode. Not that there’s inherently anything wrong with that, but perhaps the Death Becomes Her writing team could inject just a tad more deep questioning around the consequences of eternal life like in Vec Makropulos before their show hits Broadway. Not that the dueling heroines of Death Becomes Her need any significant depth to succeed and survive on stage. After all, Madeline Ashton and Helen Sharp have always been captivating cartoons since their origins on the silver screen.

Photos: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman, 2024