The Addams Family” — the 1960s sitcom, that is — was famously kooky, spooky and altogether ooky. The new Broadway musical, based not on the sitcom but on assorted one-panel cartoons drawn over the years by the New Yorker’s Charles Addams, is kooky but not spooky or ooky; nor is it neat, sweet or petite (as the song goes). What this “Addams Family” has is the gloweringly perfect Nathan Lane, who gamely thrusts Gomez’s rapier at anything — or any joke — that moves. But $16.5 million has brought forth an ill-formed one-dimensional cartoon with lines and shading not quite inked in.
The ambitious producers, led by former Disneyite Stuart Oken, have come up with a double-edged potential bonanza. While their musical is derived from neither the sitcom nor the well-remembered 1991 feature film (nor its 1993 sequel), the shared title — combined with the casting of Lane as the paterfamilias — has attracted enormous advance sales. (Premium-priced preview audiences have thus far helped “Addams” battle “Billy Elliot” and “The Lion King” for the No. 2 slot on Broadway’s weekly box office chart.) But audiences arrive expecting a musical version of the earlier Addams offshoots; without access to those scripts, the musical features the seven main characters, that spooky mansion (transplanted for reasons unknown to Central Park) and little more.
With no fresh ideas at hand, librettists Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (who paired for “Jersey Boys”) hit upon a plot that was hoary back when it was used in 1922 for Broadway’s long-running “Abie’s Irish Rose”: Find the daughter a suitor and set the severely mismatched in-laws battling. Thus, those subversively fertile Addamses are thrust into a low-level sitcom, with results several pegs below those achieved by the similarly plotted “La Cage aux Folles.”
The producers made a bold step in hiring the avant-garde team of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (“Shockheaded Peter”) as director-designers. The Broadway novices came up with a lavish and delicious scenic scheme, highlighted by a grand traveling curtain that entices, surprises and humorously frames the action. They did not prove adept as directors, alas, and were quickly and publicly furloughed following poor reviews in Chicago (where “Addams” nevertheless enjoyed exceptional business). Equally unsuccessful were the efforts of songwriter Andrew Lippa, best known for an intriguingly dramatic score to the 2000 Off Broadway production of “The Wild Party.”
Calls for doctoring brought forth Jerry Zaks, who in happier days scored four award-winning hits over a seven-year stretch. Zaks — who is credited as creative consultant, with McDermott and Crouch retaining their contractual billing — has clearly guided the rewrites and ramped up the yocks, but while the show aspires to the heights of “The Producers,” the results are more comparable to “Young Frankenstein.”
Serge Trujillo’s choreography is emblematic of the ineffective choices: The ensemble consists of a clump of Addams ancestors, pulled from a graveyard crypt. One might suspect these folks to have three heads or five eyes, but no; they are standard British-manorhouse ghosts in Miss Havisham rags — slim, trim, and straight from the gym (leading one to wonder how they degenerated into the fireplug-shaped Gomez and Fester). Once out of the crypt, they spend the evening adding ghostly, mirthless and unnecessary accents to ineffective production numbers.
What “The Addams Family” has, and what may prove more than sufficient to counteract critical carping, is Lane. The star is exceptionally good as the evening’s ringmaster, cutting up despite mostly low-grade jokes and ineffective songs. Bebe Neuwirth is less successful as Morticia, seemingly sabotaged by the creators. (Her acting role consists mostly of comparing herself to dried plums and a goat with a beard.) Carolee Carmello fights similar odds as the straitlaced, poetry-spouting mother of the groom who is mistakenly slipped some toxic Acrimonium that sets her dancing drunkenly on the table. Veteran that she is, Carmello turns her solo into a highlight.
Krysta Rodriguez and Wesley Taylor, as the lovers, brighten the stage when given the chance; Zachary James craftily lurches through the affair as the half-dead family butler; and Jackie Hoffman, as the eccentric Grandma, seems to be acting in her own not-very-good musical.
The secret weapon of “The Addams Family” turns out to be Kevin Chamberlin, who sprinkles several handfuls of stage dust over the proceedings as Fester. “The Moon and Me,” a serenade in which he soars over the stage to play with a round yellow globe, is the lone moment in which actor, material, stagecraft and Basil Twist’s puppets combine to create magic. But it’s a bad idea to have Fester wonder at intermission if the audience will “leave in an hour feeling vaguely depressed,” and a worse one to start the show with 15 seconds’ worth of that finger-snap theme from the sitcom, which turns out to be the evening’s catchiest musical moment.
There is little character development — understandably, given the lack of character — which makes the arc of the story non-existent and robs the songs of potential impact. Just Nathan Lane, plenty of jokes, some intriguing sight gags and the audience’s undisputed fondness for the Addams characters. Which, given the lack of a Broadway musical blockbuster since “Billy Elliot,” might prove enough to sustain those million-plus grosses.