Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Addams Family (The SOB Review)

The Addams Family (The SOB Review) - Oriental Theatre, Chicago, Illinois

** (out of ****)


The pivotal clan on display in The Addams Family musical doesn’t exactly epitomize “all together ooky,” but they most certainly turn out to be more than just a little kooky.

No, I don’t mean the eponymous brood, portrayed by some major stars from the theatrical firmament, each practically begging for their turns in the spotlight in this new tuner. Rather, I’m talking about Mal and Alice Beineke, along with their son Lucas, who’s newly engaged to Wednesday Addams.

What? Never heard of them? Neither had I.

Suffice to say, I could not have cared less about them, either. In short, they weren’t the family I was paying to see. Talk about mysterious and spooky.

Nor was I paying to see a retread of La Cage Aux Folles. As in that work, conservative parents meet more flamboyant ones before their children marry, the child of the flamboyant parents tries and fails to rein them in, chaos ensues, everybody learns to love their inner freak, etc., etc. We’re seen this all before, but executed infinitely better. And with more verve and heart.

Therein lay the principal problems with this musical stage adaptation of Charles Addams’ famously funny and macabre New Yorker cartoons. What were the creative minds behind this show thinking?

Quite inexplicably, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book and Andrew Lippa’s tunes have pushed the Beineke bunch forward complete with star turns for Terrence Mann (Mal) and Carolee Carmello (Alice). However, they come at the expense of a truly satisfying, original story, not to mention at the expense of those cast as the titular family.

Now please don’t get me wrong, I can’t blame Mann or Carmello. Both are actually pretty terrific. They imbue Wednesday’s would-be in-laws with a certain charm and ultimate giddiness that all but eludes Gomez (Nathan Lane) and Morticia Addams (Bebe Neuwirth). The Beinekes' very presence virtually sucks all the joy out of the two characters in whom the audience already has the most invested. And what are The Addams Family without joy? This should be fun, right?!

Lane and Neuwirth make due as best they can with the pitiable trifle they’ve been thrown, including a sidebar story in which Morticia misconstrues Gomez’s comments on youth and beauty as an ageist indictment on her. If this musical is to be true to Charles Addams’ original vision, as it claims, would this already ghoulish character really care about being one step closer to the grave? Wouldn’t that be viewed as a welcome departure for this family?

While we’re on the topic of Addams’ concepts, the advance billing for this musical also seemed to suggest that there would be no allusions to the television comedy and subsequent films. Rather than dispensing with any such nod to those works at the onset of the tuner and simply move on, directors Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch have inserted their impressive homage to the TV show’s snappy theme song about a third of the way into the first act. But it needlessly diverts focus away from whatever story has already commenced.

All is not lost in this Addams Family. No, I actually admire McDermott and Crouch’s evocative scenic design, rich in dark reds and the requisite blacks. Supplemented by Natasha Katz’s lighting, the stage is resplendent with a creepy vibe.

Additionally, two of the Addamses are actually captured to absolute perfection. Kevin Chamberlin ’s Uncle Fester gleefully manages to steal the show with a glorious dream sequence number in which he’s courting the moon. And as Grandma, the woefully underused Jackie Hoffman may have found her solo tune cut on the way to opening night in favor of those star turns by Mann and Carmello, yet she manages the last laugh, almost literally, during the first act’s dinner sequence as she ad libs to hilarious effect -- during my performance, it was one incredibly funny, timely dig at Tiger Woods.

Do I think that this Addams Family can be salvaged? Absolutely. Not only because so much is at stake financially, but especially since it contains universally loved and established characters, a stellar cast and some exceptional design elements.

Yet in order to be Broadway ready, it will take more than just a tweak here and slight adjustment there. This demands a wholesale overhaul of focus and plot. Here’s a novel idea, why don’t Brickman and Elice give us a snappier story on how The Addams Family got to be so eccentric in the first place? Whatever they do, they need to re-center this musical on the folks in the title.

Then maybe, just maybe, it could be a complete scream when people come to see ‘em.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

In keeping with the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that unfairly discriminate against bloggers, who are now required by law to disclose when they have received anything of value they might write about, please note that I have received nothing of value in exchange for this post. I paid my own way for The Addams Family.

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