In 2010 songwriter Andrew Lippa teamed up with screenwriter Marshall Brickman and playwright Rick Elice for “The Addams Family” on Broadway and now here it is provoking laughs and a standing ovation from thousands of fans at The Muny. From macabre amusement for New York sophisticates to what Muny PR material calls “beloved characters” in just over 70 years. Who'd a thunk it?
|Photo: Phillip Hamer|
I bring up all this history because the producers of the “Addams Family” musical made a conscious decision to go back to those original one-panel cartoons for inspiration. Interviewed in the “Chicago Tribune” back in 2009 Julian Crouch said that he and show co-creator Phelim McDermott centered their concept on Uncle Fester—he of the clown-white face and 1920s college band overcoat. "If Fester was going to do a Broadway show,” they asked, “what kind of Broadway show would he do?” Their intent was to create "an off-beat take on 19th Century Gothic."
I think they succeeded. Chockablock with jokes and slightly subversive, “The Addams Family” combines an eclectic and lyrically clever score with a story line that's classic sitcom, albeit infused with the warped sensibility of Addams's original drawings. It seems that Addams daughter Wednesday (now grown into a young woman) has, unknown to her parents, become engaged to Lucas Beineke, scion of the aggressively normal Alice and Mal (he prattles on about investments; she spontaneously spouts bad poetry). She breaks the news to dad Gomez but asks him to keep it a secret from mother Morticia (who is finding it difficult to come to grips with Wednesday's entry into adulthood) until the families have had a chance to meet over dinner at the Addams family's Central Park mansion. Gomez accurately foresees disaster but goes ahead anyway, with the active encouragement of Uncle Fester, who enlists the aid of a chorus of deceased family members to help young love triumph.
Which it does, but only after a disastrous after-dinner game depicted in the production number “Full Disclosure,” in which everyone must reveal a secret or face the consequences. There's also a cataclysmic storm, a misdirected magic potion, and a mass of other comic complications. In the end, even the Beinekes learn to embrace their crazy side and, as the entire company sings in the finale, “Move Toward the Darkness.”
|Photo: Phillip Hamer|
“The Addams Family” is nothing if not funny, with plenty of laugh out loud moments, both spoken and sung. For me, the whole loopy enterprise is encapsulated in Fester's big second-act song “The Moon and Me.” Having apparently decided that (to quote a lyric from "Mame") "the man essay writing in the moon is a lady," Fester has fallen in love with her, and gives voice to his feelings in an oddball production number involving a massive crescent moon on rollers and a chorus of slightly creepy chorines with umbrellas representing the phases of the moon. It's the sort of thing Ziegfeld might have concocted had he taken acid, and it perfectly captures the show's whimsically bent attitude.
There's plenty more of that brand of wackiness over the course of the evening, including “Crazier Than You,” in which Wednesday, Lucas, Mal, and Alice all learn to embrace their inner loony; “Just Around the Corner,” in which Morticia looks forward gleefully towards death along with some ancestors who have already gone down that road; and “What If,” in which brother Pugsley sadly contemplates a future in which Wednesday won't be around to nail his tongue to the floor anymore. There's so much more, in fact, that after a while it becomes (you should pardon the expression) comic overkill.
Yes, that's right. Like so many recent musicals concocted for the high-stakes theme park that Broadway has become, “The Addams Family” has just a little too much of everything: too many songs with too many lyrics and too many big dance numbers that run just a little too long. At times the entire enterprise threatens to sink under the weight of it all, only to bounce back with a great laugh line or a fast scene change. As it stands, “The Addams Family” is funny and entertaining, but a ruthless editor could make it better.
It helps that the Muny has assembled a terrific cast for this production. Rob McClure, whose Bert drew raves in “Mary Poppins” last summer, returns to the Muny stage as Gomez. In the cartoons, Gomez always looked like a decayed silent film star—Ramon Navarro on the skids. In his stage incarnation, he's more like the dark side's answer to Ricky Riccardo, all domestic befuddlement at his inability to keep both Morticia and Wednesday happy. Mr. McClue has lots of fun with the deliberately cheesy accent and drifts across the stage with the kind of grace only a solid dancer and smart physical comic can provide.
Jenny Powers, who was Mr. McClure's Mary Poppins last season, demonstrates just how wide her range is by oozing slinky grace as Morticia, impressively sure footed as she baby steps around in that absurdly tight black gown. There's real chemistry between her and Mr. McClure, lending a nice undercurrent of reality to their comically exaggerated love scenes.
|Photo: Phillip Hamer|
Sara Kapner and Dan Deluca are perfect as the absurdly mismatched Wednesday and Lucas, Michael Harp is engagingly hilarious as the twisted Pugsley, and Jennifer Cody is remarkably convincing as cheerfully decrepit Grandma Addams, given that the actress appears to be a fraction of the character's apparent age. John Scherer and Hollis Resnick are the essence of Midwestern repression as Mal and Alice, which makes their final surrender to the dark that much more funny.
Steve Rosen has the pivotal role of Uncle Fester, who acts as narrator and agent provocateur, and repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to chat and joke with the audience. The writers have made the character into a kind of whimsical clown, and Mr. Rosen makes the most of it. I'm also impressed with his ability to play the entire thing in that absurd, not-quite-falsetto head voice without making it sound false. William Ryall holds down the other end of the vocal spectrum as the hulking Lurch. He has a wonderful comic turn in the first act in which he attempts without success to tell the Beinekes who he is with a mix of grunts and physical shtick. It was a real crowd pleaser.
Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge and choreographer Vince Pesce use the big Muny stage to great advantage, making the most of the large ensemble and youth chorus. Michael Schweikhardt's scenic design captures enough of the look of the cartoons to be effective, as do Andrea Lauer's costumes. The outfits for the millennia of Addams ancestors are especially inventive. Nathan W. Scheuer's atmospheric lighting gives it all a nicely spooky look.
|Photo: Phillip Hamer|
The Muny orchestra sounded great under the baton of Ben Whiteley. And what a pleasure it was to hear some real acoustic instruments in an arrangement with some real body after the tinny sound of the reduced ensemble for "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" last week.
It's not likely that “The Addams Family” will go down in history as a high-water mark of musical theatre, but it's more consistently entertaining than a number of highly touted new mass market shows I've seen in recent years. Yes, it could use trimming, but even so it's a pleasant way to while away two and a half hours at the Muny, especially with a weather forecast calling for nighttime lows in the 50s and 60s all week. It's too much fun, but fun nevertheless.
“The Addams Family” plays nightly at 8:15 p.m. through Sunday, July 20, on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information, check out the Muny web site.