REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
There haven’t been many musicals taken from comic strips: “Li’l Abner,” “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and “Spiderman” are the three that immediately come to mind, but “The Addams Family” had a tri-level genealogy to either overcome or acknowledge: Charles Addams’ original one-panel cartoons published in The New Yorker, the 1960s ABC television show, and the 1991 motion picture (and its sequel, produced two years later). “The Addams Family – The Musical” manages to incorporate elements of all three without being beholden to any specific one, and does so in an entertaining manner.
The show’s 2010 Broadway debut received morose reviews from the press. From The New York Times: “A tepid goulash of vaudeville song-and-dance routines, Borscht Belt jokes, stingless sitcom zingers and homey romantic plotlines.” In preparation for the national tour, which is currently playing at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza through Sunday, the producers decided to exhume the story and restitch it, Frankenstein-style, simplifying complicated plot elements and removing others that proved either too expensive, unnecessary, or too distasteful (such as a much ballyhooed scene featuring a giant squid). Songs were removed, others substituted, and the result, which retains about 70% of what was in the original show, is markedly improved, allowing the wit and warmth of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book to come through.
The story that remains is predictable and totally unnecessary, because the fun is in the dialog, Andrew Lippa’s often brilliant songs, and the atmospheric staging. The spooky but harmless Addams clan is getting ready to meet the parents of daughter Wednesday’s fiancé; call it “La Cage Aux Ghoul.” The show’s opening number, “When You’re an Addams,” is delightful fun, introducing the characters as well as incorporating an ensemble of pasty-white family ancestors that look like they were borrowed from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. The seven main characters were taken directly from the ABC television show, although their appearance is closer to Charles Addams’ original drawings. Addams never named his characters, but featured them in recurring roles in his New Yorker cartoons. Fittingly, Lippa wrote music for each character in specific styles; for patriarch Gomez Addams, he incorporates flamenco-style numbers, based on Raul Julia’s portrayal in the 1991 film, which reveals Gomez as a descendant of Spanish immigrants. Jesse Sharp, who spent two years studying theater at Santa Barbara City College, is wonderful in the role as a romantic, swashbuckling rogue with a weakness for tangos and his daughter Wednesday’s happiness. He is especially good in what is probably Lippa’s cleverest song in the show, “Trapped.” Keleen Snowgren plays his wife Morticia, in a revealing black dress (“cut down to Venezuela,” cracks Gomez), that makes her resemble horror screen hostess Elvira. Rather than have her shuffle about spiderlike, as Carolyn Jones did in the TV show, Snowgren plays it more glamorously, and exhibits a terrific voice on the song “Secrets.”
The character with the biggest change is Wednesday, who in the TV show was the younger of the Addams’ two children, but in the musical, is now a rebellious teenager. Jennifer Fogarty is perfect for the role, able to keep a stoic, deadpan expression while going through her flawless dance routines. Her solo “Pulled,” in which she revels in torturing her younger brother Pugsley (Connor Barth), shows off a powerful set of pipes. Although each cast member played their parts splendidly, Fogarty was the most impressive of all.
Oak Park High School graduate (Class of 2000) Blair Anderson excels as Wednesday’s flighty mother-in-law-to-be, Alice Beineke, whose id is released after Pugsley mistakenly spikes a chalice with a mysterious mind-altering potion. Her transformation from a repressed ’60s sitcom mom to a ravenous she-wolf is something to see. In addition to a stunning voice (“Waiting”), Anderson also shows great comic ability as well.
Shaun Rice is the bald-domed Uncle Fester, who is given the only subplot remaining in the story. Improbably, it involves his infatuation with the moon, a really far-fetched notion until you realize it was probably a reverse-plot element to set up a gargantuan pop culture reference at the end of the story. Just put together the words “moon” and “Alice” and you can practically write the line yourself. Rice’s songs are primarily vaudevillian in style – song-and-dance numbers, including one where he hefts a scythe instead of a cane. Fester delights in his Gitmo-flavored collection of “instruments of persuasion” (a term Dick Cheney might use) but Rice does a great job making Fester the most lovable member of the family.
Dan Olson plays the mute servant Lurch more as a Frankenstein monster than a zombie, with his physicality reflecting his name more than the moaning Ted Cassidy in the TV show, who moved with glacial slowness. Amanda Bruton plays the witchlike Grandma, the object of probably the funniest line in the show, delivered by Gomez to Morticia: “I thought she was YOUR mother!”
The other members of the cast, Mark Poppleton as Mal Beineke and Bryan Welnicki as Lucas, Wednesday’s earnest beau, also play their parts well and exhibit fine singing voices.
Brickman and Elice’s script is what keeps this show going, the one liners landing like well-placed land mines: Alice: “Do you have a little girls’ room?” Gomez: “We did, but we let them go” and Gomez’s self-analytical comment, “What I lack in depth I make up for in shallowness.” The story still has some rough spots. Gomez and Morticia’s marital problems, caused by Gomez keeping a secret from his wife about Wednesday’s engagement, seem forced and not in character for the blissfully romantic couple we remember from the TV show. After a superbly entertaining first act, Act II is kind of a letdown, with too many character-defining, soul-opening ballads in a row. The highlights of the second act are Uncle Fester’s supremely charming “The Moon and Me” and Gomez & Morticia’s penultimate reconciliation where they finally get to tango. Lippa’s other songs are all singable, if not memorable, especially the catchy “Full Disclosure,” which bears an uncanny resemblance to “Willamania” from “The Will Rogers Follies.”
Many familiar elements from the TV show were deliberately left out, to make sure that the musical wasn’t seen as totally derived from the TV version. Lurch never gets to utter his famous catchphrase “You rang?” Morticia doesn’t fondle and murmur to her carnivorous plant Cleopatra, and Thing, the disembodied handservant, who delivers the mail and answers the phone, is only around to pull open the curtain at the beginning of acts. We do get a glimpse of the diminutive, hairy Cousin Itt, however, in a funny cameo at the beginning of Act II. And Vic Mizzy’s famous finger-snapping theme song is only heard briefly at the beginning of the overture.
The main theme of “The Addams Family” is not just to display the macabre mores of a family obsessed with torture, plagues, and pestilence, it’s a message of tolerance, to accept people for what they are. And despite all of their peccadillos, the Addamses are basically very nice people. They’re just a little weird.
Theater League’s The Addams Family plays through Sunday at the Fred Kavli Theater. It is highly recommended and suitable for youngsters. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.