AISLE SAY New York

THE ADDAMS FAMILY

Book by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice
Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Directed and Designed by Phelim McDermott & Julian Crouch
Creative Consultant: Jerry Zaks
Starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth
with Carolee Carmello, Terrence Mann and Kevin Chamberlin
Lunt Fontanne Theatre
The Addams Family Musical Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

Let me tell you why we who were there to witness its first network broadcast knew that the 60s TV sitcom based on cartoonist Charles Addams' The Addams Family was brilliant ten seconds in. Because that combination of composer Vic Mizzy's main theme opening motif—you know it, it sounds like the last four notes of a major scale in a low register, a triplet pickup into a tonic downbeat—and the double finger snap it leads to, performed by that odd looking family, standing there in live, unmoving tableau, staring at us—told us in one compact burst what the tone would be: Deadpan Grotesque. The macabre would not only be taken for granted, but rendered normal. And—never articulated but understood—the Normal world Out There would be the anomaly. We'd always be rooting for the Addamses to retain their nonconformity because the deeper metaphor was that they spoke for the iconoclast in all of us. Well, most of us. If you knew the Charles Addams cartoons (most of them one-panel sight gags), you were not let down; the series was a perfect development. If you didn't know the toons, and discovered them afterward, the artfulness of the expansion was arguably even more amazing.

                        For adapting a franchise—or beloved characters whose continued existence or adventures amount to a franchise in spirit—is, you see, all about tone, about finding the theatrical evocation of the attitude that sustains interest and affection. And one has to be precise about it, because if you miss the mark, the audience always knows: the fans, for reasons that need no explaining; and newcomers because the misfire fails to seduce.

                        Many were those, for example, who saw the Broadway revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and wondered why the creatives had bothered revisiting show so aggressively childish, few seeming to realize how thoroughly the revival distorted the tone of the original Peanuts strip as well as Clark Gesner's gentle, subtle interpretation of it when his 1966 musical debuted off-Broadway. Key to the distortion was its tendency to exploit surface details rather than psychological and thematic underpinnings, and to explain all the humor that had previously been slyly implicit (albeit perfectly clear). (I have to tell this anecdote: Clark Gesner was an adorable big teddy bear of a man, with seemingly kind words for everyone, and I’d gotten to know him a bit via The Dramatists Guild. I think he became a huge proponent of the DG because his Charlie Brown deal did not offer his work adequate protections—else the ’96 revival could not have contained all the doctoring and “improvements” by others without his approval. He’d come to see a show of mine and the subject of the revival, then current, came up. I asked him what he thought of it, and he said, after a pause, “Well, I’m just glad people are still enjoying the show.” I said, “Oh, come on. All of that monkeying with the material, all the nuance and subtlety gone, all the jokes force-fed and explained? Are you really that philosophical about it?” Another thoughtful beat and he said, “It really bothers you that much?” I said, “Yes!” And then very quietly, as if he’d never copped to it before, he said, “Me too.” Then I said: “How come it wasn’t you doing the rewrites if they wanted new material so badly?” Again, quietly: “No one asked me.”)

                        And The Addams Family musical does pretty much the same thing (it may also be no coincidence that it shares its composer-lyricist in common with the Charlie Brown revival, Andrew Lippa; resume type casting perhaps, as if the Charlie Brown gig made him the go-to guy for cartoons). It hasn't got enough of a grip on the deadpan acceptance of macabre as normal, so it has to default to sitcom standard: In the book by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice (of Jersey Boys) Wednesday Addams (Krysta Rodriguez) has grown into a young woman (with a nod toward weirdness, she retains a broody personality: call it Gothic Lite) and she's fallen in love with Lucas (Wesley Taylor) a "normal" boy from a rich, conservative family. And the young couple want to get married. His parents (Terrence Mann, Carolee Carmello) are coming to visit the Addamses on their home turf—those Addamses of course being parents Gomez and Morticia (Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth), Uncle Fester (Kevin Chamberlin), Grandmama (Jackie Hoffman) and younger brother Pugsley (Adam Riegler). (As the script would have it, by the way, their Baroque house of Lovecraftian decor, at periodic unidentified intervals, appears, Brigadoon-like, out of the mists of Central Park, a bit of mythology that has never previously been associated with anything Addams. Not that the creators of the musical shouldn't add to the lore, but this evocation of things that are unequivocally supernatural as opposed to inexplicably odd—declarative rather than suggestive, a choice the creative makes throughout [the chorus are flat-out defined as the ghosts of Addams ancestors]—is among the tone "tells" that bespeak a misunderstanding of the Addams imprimatur or an unwillingness to trust it.) Anyway, Wednesday's request to her parents is not to act weird during the evening of her potential in-laws' visit.

                        Now there's an even bigger violation—the notion that Wednesday realizes her family is weird. (It's also one that doesn't entirely track, as she will sing about her problem during a scene in which her "background" activity is, quite literally, torturing younger brother Pugsly [who, amazingly, hasn't aged commensurately along with his sister] on a limb-stretching device. Is weirdness a conflict for her or isn't it?) And how familiar is the scenario? Isn't that the basic premise of La Cage Aux Folles? Isn't the notion of "normal" daughter from a darkly weird family more Munsters than Addams? And didn't even Marilyn Munster fully accept her parents’ eccentricities?

                        The score by Andrew Lippa operates in pretty much the same way. Because it's not rooted in an authenticity of tone (and because it isn't helped by an attenuated storyline too slender to yield enough numbers that seem organic and truly necessary) it often defaults to special-material type numbers that magnify sidebar issues out of proportion (i.e. Morticia cheering herself up with a softshoe song about how Death is just around the corner; Fester singing a wistful ballad about his unrequited love affair with the moon). The songs are perfectly competent but, again, not perfectly Addams.

                        And that's why the musical is such a misfire. Not because it's dull (it isn't), nor because it doesn't have enough polish and showbiz reflex to entertain (it does? sort of?); but because it’s compromised by the creative team’s seeming sensibility mismatch to the franchise and (to all appearances at least) not having done the investigative homework that would have made even this daffy universe resonate with its audience. (By contrast, the creative team of yet another comic-based musical, Annie, never lost sight of their source material’s Depression era origins, and understood that their tale, however fanciful, was metaphor for the optimism in tough times that preserves the American Dream. It's not a deep profundity, but it's enough to strike a deep chord.)

                        Under the credited/uncredited dirction of Jerry Zaks (billed as creative consultant above original director-designers Phelim McDermott & Julian Crouch [of Shockheaded Peter] who became absent from the process in the wake of trouble on the road) the performances are as fine as they can possibly be. Nathan Lane's Gomez doesn't possess the gleaming dance of madness that shone behind the eyes of TV's John Astin, but he makes the most of the character he's been given, a concerned father with a tendency to find light humor in dark notions. (He also makes the most of the evening's best joke: after Morticia complains about the excessive behavior of "your mother"—Grandmama—he puts his hands to his head and exclaims with amazement, "I thought she was your mother…No, really!") Bebe Neuwirth does her best to infuse persona into the script’s confused and ultimately underwritten characterization. Kevin Chamberlin’s Fester is an exuberantly delightful homage to Jackie Coogan’s TV portrayal. Jackie Hoffman’s Grandmama is equally exuberant, but in concept and delivery seems more an homage to the Simpsons’ cat lady. Terrence Mann and Carolee Carmello flail about nobly for purchase in the under-conceived, clichéd roles of the conservative parents—Wesley Taylor a little less so as their son. And as Wednesday, Krysta Rodriguez makes the most of a strong belt voice to make the most of a “sleeper” role (and to be candid, the structural “lead” of the plotline) that I suppose could elevate her to higher prominence. Zachary James finds his own agreeably wacky approach to the looming butler Lurch, perhaps wisely avoiding a Ted Cassidy imitation because, well, no one can imitate that cavernous growl anyway.

                        The design elements, including some unexpected puppetry effects by Basil Twist—ironically but unsurprisingly—hit all the right marks.

                        The biggest irony, perhaps, though, is that the show opens by quoting those opening bars of the Mizzy theme. Not enough of them, I think, to be legally indebted to his estate (we never get into the actual theme song, just the intro), but certainly the audience is in instant recognition bliss, and dutifully snaps fingers in the right place, expectations high.

                        And as the saying almost goes, there’s a broken heart for every snap on Broadway…


                        Not incidentally: Here’s a YouTube link to the TV series pilot episode: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjr88r2FRhc&feature=related

                        And here’s one to an interview with composer Vic Mizzy about the theme song. Note his particular directive that the finger snap be “lackadaisical.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwkufehxKEs


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