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Chicago by John Olson

The Addams Family
Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre

Respect for history and heritage are key among the Addams family values, as we're told in the opening number of the new musical based on Charles Addams' cartoons from The New Yorker magazine. So it is with the musical itself, which respects the conventions of the big Broadway musical as much as it does the heritage of Addams' cartoons. Though, as of the press opening of the show's pre-Broadway engagement in Chicago the two traditions don't always perfectly merge, The Addams Family delivers solid entertainment values in big Broadway style.

The Addams Family
Adam Riegler, Jackie Hoffman, Krysta Rodriguez, Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Zachary James and Kevin Chamberlin

It starts with an appropriately Gothic overture played by a pit orchestra below a lowered curtain (how often do we see that any more?) before Thing (or a hand, in any event) pulls aside the curtain to reveal the family assembled in a cemetery where, we soon learn, daughter Wednesday's arrival into adulthood will be celebrated. The Addams ancestors have returned from the dead for the occasion—a reasonable-enough premise to justify the presence of an 11-member ensemble—and perform the opening number ("Clandango") together with the present-day family we know from the cartoons, TV series and films. So far, so good. From here, we're taken to the Addams Family mansion, as visualized by co-directors/co-designers Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch. It's a creepy, creaky old clapboard house that transforms smoothly into various rooms like the little chamber in which Wednesday has little brother Pugsley chained to a torture rack. There are perpetually closed shutters up and down the walls, so there's never daylight. There's a great big moon, though, and an impressive skyline of the Manhattan around Central Park, where the Mansion is located. Broadway stalwart lighting designer Natasha Katz gives exterior and interior scenes alike a gloriously macabre hue.

Once inside the house, the premise of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's book is revealed. Not only has Wednesday reached womanhood, but she has a new boyfriend to show for it—college student Lucas Beineke whose parents will be visiting from Ohio later in the week. Mom Morticia insists the Beinekes visit the Addams' for dinner and the table is set. Wednesday tries to understand her attraction to Lucas and her unease with the pleasant feelings it arouses, singing the rock-influenced "Pulled" to Pugsley as she pulls his limbs on the rack while singing lyrics that play on the reversal of good and bad for which the Addams Family is known. A song for Gomez and Morticia follows, the flamenco-influenced "Passionate and True," proclaiming the qualities of their ever-hot romance.

It's at this point that the tone is diverted musically and stylistically into classic Broadway musical in a way that's less in keeping with the understated and dry wit of the Addams Family cartoons. Wednesday's fear that exposing Lucas' family to hers will doom the relationship and her negotiations with her family over the upcoming dinner are explored in the musicalized scene "One Normal Night" (it's in this number, by the way, that we get to hear the finger-snap motif from the TV series' musical score, though not the complete title song). After the Beinekes arrive, we're fully into Broadway-land with the production number "Let's Not Talk About Anything Else But Love," sung by Wednesday, Uncle Fester and Lucas (backed up by a chorus of dead ancestors who come to life out of their portraits on the walls). If it lacks Addams-esque irony, it's a fun number nonetheless with McDermott and Crouch's set moving the mansion's creaky stairs in sections to form a grand staircase suitable for an MGM musical.

McDermott and Crouch, best-known in the U.S. for Shockheaded Peter, have done a lot of opera in the UK and they've brought an operatic sensibility to this piece. There's a lot of music, for one thing—especially in the first act—but there's an emphatic nature to it that sometimes feels pushy in comparison to the subtlety of Charles Addams' dark humor. Some of the cast—Krysta Rodriguez as Wednesday and Adam Riegler as Pugsley particularly—belt out their tunes a la Merman or LuPone and that tends to work against the macabre tone of the source material.

If you're going to create (or see) a big traditional Broadway musical, though, it's hard to picture a better cast than this one. Above the title we have the legendary Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth as Gomez and Morticia. Lane makes the role of his own—romantic, earthy and frequently inappropriate ("May I look through your wallet?," he asks Lucas' father, "Just a thought."). He mostly avoids the mannerisms we recognize from the roles he inherited from Zero Mostel. Once we get used to his take on Gomez and set aside our memories of John Astin and Raul Julia, we're with Lane all the way. Neuwirth is a perfect Morticia, more vulnerable than we're used to seeing her (the plot has her concerned about her fading youth as attention turns to Wednesday's blossoming womanhood). She has Morticia's dry humor down pat (upon hearing Lucas tell of the thresher accident which claimed the arms of his uncle, she calmly remarks, "it's a beautiful story."). She gets a couple of dance numbers as well—"Second Banana," in which she struggles with her insecurities as well as an uncooperative follow spot, and "The Swordfight/Tango," fought with Gomez.

As Uncle Fester, Kevin Chamberlin, made up to look exactly like Uncle Fester of the cartoons, is likely headed for a featured actor Tony Award nomination. He's at the center of the big production number, "Let's Not Talk About Anything Else But Love," but also gets the most charming moment of the show. Uncle Fester is in love, you see. With the Moon. He gets to frolic with the Moon herself inthea sweet and imaginatively staged number "The Moon and Me," in which he cavorts in the sky with a giant beach-ball of a moon, all the while backed by ancestors in Mack Sennett-style beachwear. Grandma, played by Jackie Hoffman, has little opportunity to sing but she's a riot in a scene involving her potions and little Pugsley.

Wednesday's presumed future in-laws, Mal and Alice Beineke, are played by Terrance Mann and Carolee Carmello. Mann's character is a rather heartless and colorless workaholic, but he gets to show off his powerful baritone after an encounter with one of the mansion's creatures changes his outlook. Alice has her own transformation, thanks to her inadvertent ingestion of Grandma's "acrimony" potion. She expresses the frustration of her marriage in the Sondheim-esque number "Waiting."

The youth parts are played by notable up-and-comers of the Broadway scene. Rodriguez, who's been in Spring Awakening and In the Heights successfully navigates the challenge of being the character most changed from the way we remember her. Wednesday is older and a little more normal than the girl of the TV series, but Rodriguez keeps her dark side on view. As her beau, Wesley Taylor (of Rock of Ages) is a romantic—a college lit major—and he convinces us he'd be attracted to the exotic and dark Wednesday. Bookwriters Elice and Brickman might do well to write a little more quirkiness into his role before the show gets to Broadway, though. The lovers get a quirky second act duet, "Crazier Than You," that's a showcase for their vocal talents. Adam Riegler, of Shrek the Musical and the title role in the YouTube series Cubby Bernstein: Tony Campaign Manager, is suitably bratty as Pugsley. Zachary James gives a fun performance as the glacially paced, deep-voiced butler Lurch.

At face value, Brickman and Elice's plot seems to channel the story of La Cage Aux Folles, with the traditional parents of one child meeting the non-traditional parents of the other. It's not. The Addams Family differs in that Gomez and Morticia are completely comfortable in their own skin and would never think of hiding who they are. In their minds, they're the normal ones. The Beineke family is simply a point of comparison against which the unique qualities of the Addamses stand out. The plot itself is thin—more of a device to string together a series of situations than propelling the action or creating. This may not be so disappointing if one looks at the musical as a series of cartoons, albeit cartoons brought to life with song & dance as well as acting.

Andrew Lippa's score is a mixed bag of varying genres. The Overture and the several Spanish-influenced numbers suggest a style that might have been used to more unifying effect and make the score more of a piece. "Let's Not Talk About Anything Else But Love," as well as "Full Disclosure" and "Second Banana" are Kander and Ebb-ish and Mann's "In the Arms" has a Lloyd Webber pop operetta quality to it. Gomez's ballad of children growing up, "Happy/Sad," breaks no new ground but is a lovely song and a sweet moment for the show and for Lane. Taken individually, the songs are catchy and enjoyably memorable on a first hearing. Sergio Trujillo's choreography incorporates elements of Spanish dance, traditional Broadway and vaudeville kicks and his own vocabulary of ghostly movement for his ensemble of the undead.

At this performance, the first act ran 80 minutes and the second at 60 minutes, a reasonable length. The action seemed to drag only in the act one scenes where the fathers and the mothers have separate get-acquainted chats. It shouldn't be hard for the creative team to adjust before Broadway. They have another month in Chicago and a two-month hiatus before starting previews in New York. The piece is already entertaining and worthy of Broadway ticket prices. They have the opportunity to dial up the dark humor and irony associated with The Addams Family or keep it straddling the worlds of the New Yorker cartoons and the New York commercial theater world. That may be a tough call as audiences will expect a Broadway musical to deliver both. The brassiness of Broadway may not mix perfectly with the understated humor of Charles Addams, but the showmanship of this production should be enough to satisfy most audiences.

The Addams Family will play the Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago through Sunday, January 10, 2010, prior to beginning previews on Broadway Saturday, March 4, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in advance of its scheduled opening on April 8, 2010. Tickets for the Chicago engagement are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000, all Ticketmaster retail locations, and online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com.


Photo by Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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