They're campy and they're kooky, quite antic and hopelessly romantic. That's "The Addams Family."
They’re campy and they’re kooky, not really all that spooky, they’re corny and quite antic, and hopelessly romantic. That’s “The Addams Family” in this new musical based on the characters of cartoonist Charles Addams, familiarized through TV and film incarnations. Opening in Chicago en route to an April berth at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne, the show is theatrical comfort food, providing value for the consumer dollar. Slickly and grandly designed, completely accessible, consistently amusing and in its own way a genuine tribute to old-fashioned Broadway musical entertainment, this tuner loves the use of a spotlight, shining it generously on gifted stars Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth.
If some of the principal collaborators — composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa (“The Wild Party”) and director-designers Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (“Shockheaded Peter”) — seemed a bit offbeat for such a big-time commercial endeavor, you’d never know it from the end result. The team, which also includes book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”), embraces the pure mainstream nature of the project and seems happily hellbent on delivering everything a fan of the franchise could ask for.
They even give us a terrifically timed little snippet of the family snapping their fingers in that familiar tableau, a surefire signal that audience expectations are being respected rather than upended.
From the start, the show looks rich and gorgeous, beginning in a cemetery but taking place primarily inside the Addams’ gothic home, populated with, among other fun puppets from Basil Twist, a mouse-eating plant and a giant squid in the closet.
Opening number “Clandango” — celebrating the “coming of age” of daughter Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez) — introduces the elaborately garbed chorus of family ancestors and establishes the old-fashioned values the Addams represent: family above all.
Aging Wednesday to her late teens and giving her a love interest named Lucas (Wesley Taylor), Brickman and Elice set a basic plot in motion with the typical entry of outsiders — Lucas and his parents, Mal and Alice Beineke (Terrence Mann, Carolee Carmello) — into the Addams exotic lair.
There’s the usual fun but predictable shock at the Addams’ oddness by the uptight Ohioans, but clearly the desire is to avoid overplaying the formula. Instead, the tables get turned a bit, and Gomez (Lane) and Morticia (Neuwirth) begin dispensing marital (read: sexual) advice.
Story starts off cleanly and builds well through much of the first act. But by the second, once its primary conflicts are set up, the show primarily lurches from one number to another (which brings up Lurch, played with wonderful dryness and a deep bass by Zachary James).
Lippa’s music moves through a series of classic styles — the cabaret torch song “Second Banana” for narcissistic Morticia, suddenly obsessed with her own aging; the jazzy/swingy/catchy “Let’s Not Talk About Anything Else but Love,” sung by Kevin Chamberlin’s Uncle Fester, a semi-narrator who establishes the (literally) over-the-moon romantic sentiment; the lovely, Sondheim-ish ballad of contradictory emotions, “Happy/Sad,” which Gomez sings to Wednesday when her relationship with Lucas hits a predictable bump.
There’s also a lot of underscoring — Grandma (played as an ancient hippie by Jackie Hoffman) even calls a halt to it at one point — that swells frequently to ensure the underlying emotions become manifest.
Is the show overcrammed and underfocused? Yup — the chorus, for example, makes sense for two of the numbers, but then just seems to hang there in the shadows. And it’s easy to miss a bit more edgy, existential perversity. But despite plenty of zingers about torture instruments and death, these characters are as sentimental as such macabre figures could get.
From a structural perspective, the storytelling is all rising action followed by rapid and not really convincing resolution. In other words, when it’s time to wrap it up, the crafted conflicts get ironed out, whether ready or not, including Morticia’s otherwise nicely developed midlife crisis. And it’s a terrible idea to climax with a swordfight, even a comic one, unless you can really deliver the goods, which is beyond most shows, including this one. Better to beef up the tango and abandon the blades.
But such qualms likely won’t bother the broad target audience. Let’s face it: The sitcom and the films weren’t great aesthetic pieces, but they had style and flair and flash, and this does too. And it’s very funny, with special nods to Chamberlin, whose ultra-corny number “The Moon and Me” is a comic highlight, as well as to Hoffman and Lane. Playing a perfect role for him, with a mild, slightly silly accent, Lane delivers plenty of ace one-liners that nod toward the oddball even if the tone of the work as a whole never fully goes there.
If the show’s narrative resolutions are messy, its message about life and love is straightforward — you can’t have the light without the dark, and passion is all. That could fit on a greeting card — or more appropriately, a cartoon panel — but it rings remarkably true.