Post-Broadway changes please critics

TORONTO — After opening to scary reviews in Chicago in 2009 and worse ones in Gotham in 2010, legiters might have expected the folks behind Broadway musical “The Addams Family” to close the crypt door quietly and fade away into oblivion.

Instead, the creative team made like Dr. Frankenstein and overhauled the piece completely before launching it on the road in September.

The surprising result: It’s alive. And the show’s unusual post-Rialto transformation reps an increasing understanding among legit producers that a Main Stem production doesn’t have to serve as a show’s final cut.

“These days Broadway is the beginning of the journey, not the end,” says “Addams” producer Stuart Oken. “We had a whole world out there to see ‘The Addams Family,’ so why not make it right?”

“The Addams Family 3.0,” as Windy City producer Oken of Elephant Eye Theatrical now calls it, has been garnering upbeat reviews and solid business, with dates booked through next summer and plans for international versions in Australia, Brazil and elsewhere falling neatly into place.

This time around, the tone struck by the critics is best captured in a line from Judith Newmark’s review in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Is it a masterpiece? No. But it’s appealing entertainment.”

It’s not unheard of for post-Broadway rejiggering to occur. Successful longrunners including “Wicked” and “The Lion King,” for instance, have fixed niggling creative issues in road versions, with the changes subsequently worked back in to the Main Stem original. The tour of “Legally Blonde,” meanwhile, went out with a largely redesigned physical production that proved far more sustainable than the pricier Broadway draft.

“Addams,” however, stands out for the extensive nature of the creative work undertaken in the wake of its Broadway debut.

The story was overhauled using a new plot element — patriarch Gomez lying to wife Morticia over their daughter’s impending marriage — as a motor to drive things forward. Composer Andrew Lippa came up with new songs, while Jerry Zaks helmed from scratch. A fresh cast, led by Douglas Sills (“The Scarlet Pimpernel”) and Sara Gettelfinger (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”), now play things for lightness and charm.

“Everyone was onboard with the notion that we had a real opportunity on the road to finally finish what we had started,” Zaks says.

Oken now admits that he initially put together a variety of elements that sounded good individually, but never really gelled.

Getting the “Jersey Boys” team of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elise to write the book seemed smart, as did the choice of composer-lyricist Lippa (“The Wild Party”), “Memphis” choreographer Sergio Trujillo and stars Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth as Gomez and Morticia. He reached into left field to pick the indie-minded director-designer team responsible for “Shockheaded Peter,” Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, to be the creative leaders of the production. The matchmaking didn’t pan out.

In Chicago, Oken says, “It all deteriorated in the final stages of rehearsal, and the best we could do before the opening was keep our heads above water.” The result, which bowed in Chi in November 2009, proved a strange hybrid: part Gothic spectacle, part old-school musical.

Dismissive notices almost sank them, but the producers rallied and called in Zaks, who had worked previously with Lane (“Guys and Dolls,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”). The director also had an established reputation as a show doctor (“Smokey Joe’s Cafe”), with the Broadway retooling of “Sister Act” among his more recent credits.

The main creative obstacle to overcome, according to creatives, was the initial choice to tell a new story based on the Addams cartoons, rather than the property’s subsequent iterations on the tube or the bigscreen.

“We learned very quickly that the audience wanted what they remembered, not some new take on the material,” Trujillo says. “And we didn’t have the time to change it the way they wanted.”

Adds Oken: “You get into the panic of coming into Broadway and it’s a very tough, painful experience, especially when you know you’re not ready.”

Although the show’s April 2010 opening brought largely nasty reviews, the appeal of the original material kept drawing people in — and prompted the team to give it another try.

“The Addams Family” closes Dec. 31 on the Rialto after 750 perfs. It likely won’t recoup — but producers are hoping the retooled road version helps the title earn its keep.

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