Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Addams Family, The Musical

At one point, somewhere in the second act, Gomez Adams, played by Nathan Lane, looks up at statuesque Bebe Neuwirth, playing his wife Morticia and tells her that what he lacks in height he makes up for in shallowness. In many ways this quip could be a good description of The Addams Family, The Musical, the new show that is ready to open at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

The production had a troubled out-of-town run in Chicago and garnered mixed reviews. Its original director was fired and Broadway legend Jerry Saks was brought in to patch things up. Mr. Saks is billed in the current playbill as creative consultant while the team of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (who brought Philip Glass's Satyagraha from the English National Opera to the MET last year) are billed as the show's directors and designers.

The press release of this production informs us that the creators have gone back to the original source and drawn their inspiration from the kooky, macabre, but lovable cartoons that illustrator Charles Addams published on the pages of The New Yorker magazine from 1933 to his death in 1988. That is true in that they even borrow some of the captions from the famed cartoons and incorporated them into the script. In actuality, any musical that claims to have the Addams Family as its title has to draw primarily from the 1960's ABC TV sitcom which codified and labeled Charles Addams's unnamed cartoon characters. Likewise, Barry Sonnenfeld Paramount films from the early 1990s: The Addams Family and Addams Family Values (written by Paul Rudnick) are sources of inspiration for this musical.

As they went from the pages of The New Yorker to TV to the movies, the characters underwent interesting transformations. The TV series Gomez (played by John Astin) was a wacky aristocrat who dabbled on Wall Street and often called his Witch Doctor in Africa for medical consultations. His Spanish ethnicity, largely hidden, only erupted in moments of passion when the word "querida" escaped from his lips and he kissed the length of Carolyn Jones 's arm. Her Morticia was a kittenish witch who might have been the descendant of a clan that escaped the Salem burnings. The TV Addamses were very WASPy blue bloods with deep ancestral roots (as opposed to the blue-collared Munsters on CBS), and might have lived on Park if the avenue had room for a haunted house. In this production the mansion is inside Central Park! In the Sonnenfeld films Gomez (deliciously played by Raul Julia) became a full-blooded Latin lover while Anjelica Huston's Morticia was a sultry, gothic siren beautifully lit around the eyes to give her a ghostly appearance. The character of Uncle Fester, who was played in the TV series by silent film former child star Jackie Coogan, was a lovable man-child who was able to conduct electricity, while for the big screen Christopher Lloyd brought out a darker side to the character.

In this show, Nathan Lane plays Gomez at his oiliest: an over-the-hill lounge lizard with an outrageous Spanish accent. Bebe Neuwirth does a creditable job with Morticia, but the truth of the matter is that the show doesn't give her the scene stealing opportunities afforded her co-star, so she ends up being no more than a ghoulish gothic hottie with a plunging neckline. And speaking of her dress and other things: she and Lane get to cut up a rug on the dance floor. They dance a sultry tango where Ms. Neuwirth gets to show us the shapely legs that are hidden beneath that tight black dress.

The basic plot of this show channels a classic story premise used in the TV series as well as in the movies: a "normal" family visits the Addamses at their house. This visit has a distinctive "Cage aux Folles" flavor since the reason for the visit involves Wednesday Addams (Krysta Rodriguez) who has fallen in love with Lucas (Wesley Taylor), a young man from Ohio who is in New York with his parents (Carolee Carmelo and Terrence Mann). Yep! You know what's coming! Pretty soon the visiting family begins to see things the Addamses's way. All of this is treated with plenty of crowd-pleasing goofiness through songs that unfortunately try to top each other. Does every composer on Broadway these days feel that every song must be a showstopper? Apparently, yes, they do! Regretfully, what should be the real theme of the Addams family, starting with the cartoons themselves, which is questioning the definition of what is normal, remains undeveloped behind the glitz.

The reason for this problem lies with Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and their uneven book which fails to conjure the true spirit of the Addams Family cartoons. True to the cartoons, they do succeed in putting together a show which feels episodic, and for some reason I just don't think that was their intention. The show is also chock full of topical references ranging from Health Care to texting, which do get a big laugh, but which make the show feel as if the creators are trying to grab an audience that is ebbing away from them. Also, there is a surprising amount of philosophizing about the existential aspect of life. One character, with dread, compares our fleeting days on Earth to a tight rope with a coffin waiting for us at the end. The real Addamses would never fear death! Instead they would probably invite him over for drinks, offer their umbrella stand for his scythe, and ask him to stay overnight in one of the guest rooms if he wasn't too busy.

The show's supporting cast is an interesting mix. Kevin Chamberlin as Uncle Fester plays the character as a sweet weirdo who's in love with a nocturnal celestial body, His love song, visually inspired in part by a famous Georges Méliès silent film is a memorable part of the show. On the other hand, the character of Grandma, played with showstopping energy by Jackie Hoffman, is turned into a foul-mouthed, ex-hippie hag who peddles various drugs out of a wheeled cart that looks like a voodoo altar.

Here's a scene they did manage to get right. Gomez is sitting on a swing outside his mansion, behind him a beautiful backdrop of Central Park West. Suddenly, gunshots are heard. Gomez's face breaks into a pleased, satisfied smile. That's the spirit of Charles Addams! I wish there was more of it in this cute, at times lovable, but ultimately flawed show.

1 comment:

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