The review was originally published on April 8, 2010.
Everything about the beginning of “The Addams Family: A New Musical,” which has opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, promises a familiar, funny, even exciting night at the theater. Most of the audience happily snapped its fingers along with the theme song from the 1960’s television series, which serves as overture. A hand appears in mid-air to part the curtain – it’s Thing T. Thing! Most viewers remember him (it?) as Thing, but that was not his full name. He was one of the regular characters in the four Addams Family TV series (two of them animated), the several feature films and surely even the Addams Family video games.
What we first see on the stage itself after the curtain is drawn is a visual spectacle: Amid the creepy mist, a soaring Gothic gate in front of an ancient graveyard graced by an overhanging Spanish oak tree in spooky silhouette, a sickly yellow-orange full moon…and the Addams family, just as we remember them — dashing and ghoulish Gomez, his wife the elegant and macabre Morticia, crazy Uncle Fester and Grandma, the chilling children, the Frankenstein-like Lurch.
“Tell us what it is that every Addams hopes for,” says the always-hilarious Nathan Lane.
“Darkness, grief, and unspeakable sorrow,” replies the forever-exquisite Bebe Neuwirth.
“I love it when you talk sexy!”
And then they launch into an opening number, “When You’re an Addams,” that is Latin-tinged, fast-moving and amusing. Here is a truncated version as it appeared on The Letterman Show (They don’t show the mummy ancestors emerging one by one from the crypt, for example):
Why, I wondered, did this terrific show get such terrible word-of-mouth?
As “The Addams Family” progressed, however, my reaction changed. I experienced what might be called the six stages of musical mortification: excitement, expectation, impatience, disbelief, distraction, disappointment. When, shortly after the beginning of Act II, Uncle Fester asks the audience directly “What happens now? Can this be repaired? Or do you all leave in an hour feeling vaguely depressed?” he was not just talking about the complications in the story up to that point. Unintentionally or as an inside joke, he was also referring to the musical itself.
The problems begin with the plot. Weird Wednesday has fallen in love with a normal boy, Lucas, much to her parents’ horror, who are aghast that their daughter has started to wax poetic about flowers rather than decapitating them so that they’ll die. Nevertheless, Gomez and Morticia agree to play host to Lucas’s mother and father in the Addams family haunted house of a home, inviting them to a dinner party and promising to act normal. The dinner party goes awry…but not awry enough. The story has elements of “La Cage Aux Folles” and “The Rocky Horror Show,” and nearly every horror spoof, but the way it plays out has little of the verve, excess, chaos or perversity that would make it stand out. It’s more sweet than subversive. A student assigned a paper on the theme of this musical would explain it as an exploration of the different kinds of romantic and familial love; there are numerous subplots that trace various characters’ relationships — Morticia with Gomez; Lucas’s father with his mother; Grandma with Pugsley; Uncle Fester with the moon — except they are so minimally developed that it is a stretch even to call them subplots. Each gets a few lines of dialogue, a song or two.
As a result, easily a third of the songs feel as if they could be in any musical, not necessarily this one. That would matter little if there were exceptionally memorable melodies — after all, wasn’t it a common practice of such master songwriters as Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers to recycle songs from one show into another until they became hits?
It is unlikely that any of the songs in “The Addams Family” will score big on iTunes, but they are at the very least professional in a variety of styles, and many have their share of clever lyrics. My favorite was “The Moon and Me,” a silly but lovely melody that has some wonderful staging, with Fester communing in space with the moon. I wish I could say that choreographer Sergio Trujillo, who worked such magic with “Jersey Boys,” “Next to Normal” and especially “Memphis,” did the same consistently with the dancing here, and that Bebe Neuwirth ripped off the top of the theater as she has so many times before, most notably in “Chicago.” Neuwirth, who has been upfront about her two hip replacement surgeries, is a trouper, but one wonders whether Trujillo could have choreographed the climactic tango in a way that would have shown her to better effect.
Still, there are moments of enjoyment in “The Addams Family.” There are some good jokes — some of them corny puns, some of them sophisticated topical observations — terrific visual touches, and a first-rate cast: Stand-outs in addition to Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth are Kevin Chamberlin as Fester and Jackie Hoffman as Grandma, but everybody here lifts the material.
The unsung star of the show is Basil Twist, who created the puppets. Gomez uses his fence’s foil to slice a big yellow tassel off the curtain, which comes to life, argues and scurries away. Morticia talks lovingly to a mouse, before feeding it into an appreciative Venus fly trap. Pugsy can’t sleep because there is NO monster in the closet; it turns out to be under his bed. Gomez discusses politics with a giant pet squid in the basement. If the aptly-named Twist did not exist, the musical would have even less of the twisted sensibility of Charles Addams.
Judging from the shelves full of merchandise specifically created for the Addams Family musical and on sale in the theater and online — reprints of the New Yorker magazine cartoons in which Charles Addams originated these characters, but also a large variety of t-shirts (“If you have always wanted to be a part of this devilishly macabre family, now’s your chance with this stylish 100% cotton navy t-shirt”) as well as mugs and umbrellas and bibs (!) — the producers expect “The Addams Family: A New Musical” to be around for a long time. They might well be right. I would feel better about it if they had included the monsters.
The Addams Family
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Creative consultant: Jerry Zaks
Choreography by Sergio Trujillo
Directed and designed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch
Nathan Lane as Gomez Addams
Bebe Neuwirth as Mortician Addams
Kevin Chamberlin as Uncle Fester
Jackie Hoffman as Grandma
Krysa Rodriguez as Wednesday Addams
Adam Riegler as Pugsley Addams
Zachary James as Lurch
Terrence Mann as Mal Beineke
Carolee Carmello as Alice Beineke
Wesley Taylor as Lucas Beineke
Erick Buckley, Rachel de Benedet, Matthew Gumley, Fred Inkley, Morgan James, Clark Johnsen, Barrett Martin, Jessica Lea Patty, Liz Ramos, Charlie Sutton, Alena Watters as Addams ancestors
Running time: Two and a half hours, with one 15-minute intermission
Ticket prices: $51.50 – $136.50.
The show is recommended for ages 10 and up.<