If you want to know why musical comedy is such a difficult art form to master, a prime example is now on display at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre where "The Addams Family" has fitfully burst into story and song.
In attempting to give Charles Addams' macabre characters a life beyond the brilliant single-panel cartoons that appeared for years in The New Yorker, the creators of this schizophrenic musical have made them more audience friendly. But in a perverse way, they're not as much fun.
Gomez. Morticia. Uncle Fester. Grandma. Wednesday. Pugsley. Lurch. Weird, of course. But, in a way, just like us ordinary folks, with emotions, insecurities, hopes and fears. That seems to be the thrust of the joke-peppered book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice.
The two have concocted a predictable tale of culture clashes between the oddball Addams crew and the square, straight-laced Ohio family whose son wants to marry almost grown-up Wednesday. It's this juxtaposition of the two families that occupies and undermines much of the musical, particularly in the second act when the anemic plot practically evaporates.
The score by Andrew Lippa, best known as the composer of the off-Broadway "Wild Party," is eclectic, striving to giving each character his or her unique sound. Latin for Gomez, for example. A pop motif for Wednesday. And more traditional Broadway razzmatazz for an almost vaudevillian Uncle Fester.
Lippa's efforts make for a few jaunty tunes and a sizable collection of nimble lyrics the rhythmic opening number that introduces the Addams clan is especially catchy. Unfortunately, they compete with more prosaic songs that fill time rather than advance the minimal story or flesh out the characters in any meaningful way.
Which means a heavy burden is placed on the show's stars to entertain. For the most part, they do, most emphatically Nathan Lane as Gomez, the patriarch of the household.
Lane, complete with a deliciously phony Spanish accent, is the hardest working actor on Broadway. Whatever they are paying him and I hope it is a lot he's worth the price. The actor possesses a theatrical gusto that makes the musical move whenever he is on stage. There's a confidence to his singing, dancing and clowning. He seems to have an innate GPS for finding a laugh.
As Morticia, a sexy Bebe Neuwirth looks gorgeous, even though as Gomez's wife she often has to act as second banana to his flashy high jinks. The creators have tried hard to give her a moment a big dance number at the top of Act 2 but the song and choreography (courtesy of Sergio Trujillo) feel superfluous.
The supporting players also get their chance in the spotlight. The appealing Kevin Chamberlin as the sweet-tempered Uncle Fester sings a love song to the moon, although one wishes the song were better to fully realize the scene's laugh potential.
Jackie Hoffman displays a fine comic lewdness as Grandma, and there are effective cameos by Zachary James as an appropriately cadaverous Lurch and Adam Riegler as a malevolent little Pugsley.
As the young lovers, Krysta Rodriguez and Wesley Taylor are surprisingly bland, but then they are given some of the musical's more simpering material. The performers portraying Wednesday's would-be in-laws Terrence Mann and Carolee Carmello don't stand a chance, either, against the show's more exotic personalities. Still, Carmello, as the flighty potential mother-in-law, has a few moments of delightful giddiness delivering her lines in rhyming, greeting-card cheerfulness.
Ghostly, long-dead Addams ancestors make up the underused chorus, but there is some inventive puppet contributions from Basil Twist including an amorous squid.
It's not easy to determine who exactly directed what in "The Addams Family." The show's out-of-town troubles resulted in Jerry Zaks being brought aboard as "creative consultant," even though both Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch are still credited with the show's choppy direction and elaborate design.
That design includes an elegant, appropriately spooky Victorian mansion, plunked down in New York's Central Park. The setting is stylish and consistently watchable, unlike the patchwork musical it houses. Charles Addams' inspired creations have survived a 1960s television series use of the TV show's memorable finger-snapping theme gets a big laugh here as well as two movies. And they will survive Broadway as well.
It's definitely a feat of some kind: Broadway's "The Addams Family" has watered down one of the quirkiest pop- culture creations ever. And to think it had so much going for it.
Written by the "Jersey Boys" team, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, the show stars stage royalty: Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth as Gomez and Morticia.
They're supported by top pros like Terrence Mann ("Beauty and the Beast") and Carolee Carmello ("Mamma Mia!"), who play the straight-laced Mal and Alice Beineke. Their son, Lucas (Wesley Taylor), has fallen in love with Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez), who, while everyone else here is cartoon-perfect, is missing her signature braids.
The confrontation between the squares and the freaks makes up the show's plot. If it's good enough for "La Cage aux Folles" . . .
The similarity isn't the problem. It's that one minute the Addamses revel in gallows humor, the next they're singing about their feelings. Blecch!
The one thing we don't need from them is sappy numbers. We know this family's bound by a tight affection; they just don't express it like the rest of us. They live in a Bizarro world where keeping a giant squid in the basement is normal.
What you don't expect is Gomez singing banalities like "Love survives" and "Love still conquers all" to his daughter.
In what looks like a move to court the "Wicked" crowd, Wednesday is now 18 and the epitome of vanilla girl power. When she and her paramour compete in "Crazier Than You," they crackle with the intensity of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber fighting over a Twinkie.
The production looks great -- special kudos to Basil Twist's puppets for cousin Itt and the monster under the bed -- but the show is torn between the clashing sensibilities of arty British directors/designers Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch ("Shockheaded Peter"), and "creative consultant" Jerry Zaks.
On the one hand, Uncle Fester (Kevin Chamberlin) delivers a lovely "The Moon and Me" that has the evocative magic of Georges Méliés' movies. On the other, Lane and Jackie Hoffman (Grandma) gleefully indulge in vaudevillian antics. The two styles are fine separately, but don't quite mesh.
Andrew Lippa's dull score doesn't help, and what little of it sticks is due to the performers' superior chops. Even Neuwirth's overuse of vibrato adds a certain frisson to "Just Around the Corner."
Tellingly, the audience is at its most engaged when hearing Vic Mizzy's iconic theme for the TV show. It tells volumes about both Broadway's craving for familiarity and the inability of modern composers to come up with anything as catchy as those finger snaps.
Imagine, if you dare, the agonies of the talented people trapped inside the collapsing tomb called “The Addams Family.” Being in this genuinely ghastly musical — which opened Thursday night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater and stars a shamefully squandered Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth — must feel like going to a Halloween party in a strait-jacket or a suit of armor. Sure, you make a flashy (if obvious) first impression. But then you’re stuck in the darn thing for the rest of the night, and it’s really, really uncomfortable. Why, you can barely move, and a strangled voice inside you keeps gasping, “He-e-e-lp! Get me out of here!”
That silent scream rises like a baleful ectoplasm from a production that generally offers little to shiver about, at least not in any pleasurable way. The satisfying shiver, of course, was what was consistently elicited by the gleefully macabre cartoons by Charles Addams that inspired this musical, as well as a 1960s television series and two movies in the early 1990s. It’s a rare American who isn’t familiar with the sinister little clan (which first appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1938) for whom shrouds are the last word in fashion, and a guillotine is the perfect children’s toy.
This latest reincarnation of “The Addams Family” is clearly relying, above all, on its title characters’ high recognition factor. That such faith is not misplaced is confirmed by the audience’s clapping and snapping along with the first strains of the overture, which appropriates the catchy television theme song. When the curtain parts to reveal a Madame Tussauds-like tableau of the assembled Addamses, there is loud, salutatory applause.
There they are, lined up like tombstones (appropriately, since the setting is a cemetery) and looking as if they had just stepped out of Charles Addams’s inkwell. Shrink these impeccably assembled creatures to a height of 10 inches, and you could give them away with McDonald’s Happy Meals (or, given the context, Unhappy Meals).
This is not an inappropriate thought, since this show treats its characters as imaginative but easily distracted children might treat their dolls, arbitrarily making them act out little stories and situations. The creators of “The Addams Family” — which has a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and songs by Andrew Lippa — have said they wanted to return to the spirit of the original New Yorker cartoons.
It’s true that the show has moments that quote directly from Addams’s original captions. But those captions were for a limited number of single-panel cartoons. So what to do for the rest of the evening? The answer, to borrow from Irving Berlin, is “everything the traffic will allow.”
A tepid goulash of vaudeville song-and-dance routines, Borscht Belt jokes, stingless sitcom zingers and homey romantic plotlines that were mossy in the age of “Father Knows Best,” “The Addams Family” is most distinctive for its wholesale inability to hold on to a consistent tone or an internal logic. The show, which was previously staged in Chicago, has a troubled past. The original directors, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (also the production’s designers), still retain director credit, but Jerry Zaks, identified in the program as a creative consultant, is known to have reworked the show. (The look is Charles Addams run through a Xerox enlarger, though it makes witty use of the classic red velvet curtain.)
Mr. McDermott and Mr. Crouch were responsible for the blissfully ghoulish little show “Shockheaded Peter,” and their darkly precious aesthetic is the opposite of that of Mr. Zaks, a veteran purveyor of Broadway razzmatazz. So a collision of sensibilities was to be anticipated.
What’s more surprising (given Mr. Brickman and Mr. Elice’s solid collaboration on “Jersey Boys”) is the ragbag nature of the script, which seems to be shaped by an assortment of mismatched approaches. The show begins with the expected milking of classic Addams perversity, in which morbidity is automatically substituted for cheerfulness. But somewhere along the way the plot becomes a costume-party rehash of the proper-boy-meets-girl-from-crazy-family story line that dates back to “You Can’t Take It With You.”
Gomez (Mr. Lane) and Morticia (Ms. Neuwirth), the heads of the family, discover to their alarm that Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez), their 18-year-old daughter, has fallen in love with Lucas Beineke (Wesley Taylor), a young man from a middle-class all-American home. What’s more, Wednesday has invited Lucas and his parents — Mal (Terrence Mann) and Alice (Carolee Carmello) — for dinner, and insists that the family try to act “normal” for the night.
That directive includes Uncle Fester (Kevin Chamberlin), Grandma (Jackie Hoffman), little Pugsley (Adam Riegler) and Lurch (Zachary James), the towering, taciturn butler. It is clear things will not go well when, as soon as the Beinekes arrive, Mal asks, “What is this, some kinda theme park?”
Of course it is, Mal. This is a 21st-century Broadway musical. Did I mention, by the way, that the Addams homestead in this version is in Central Park? In what appears to be a tourist-courting stratagem, the seeming strangeness of the Addamses is equated with the strangeness of New Yorkers as perceived by middle Americans. (Cue the old New York City jokes.)
But it turns out that all of us are strange in our own ways (even Beinekes), that love conquers all, and that Morticia and Gomez are really just a pair of old softies, who worry about the same things that all moms and dads do, like getting older and seeing their children leave the nest.
These worries have been set to blandly generic music by Mr. Lippa. (Sergio Trujillo did the perfunctory choreography, which includes a chorus line of ancestral ghosts.) And though the show makes fun of the greeting-card perkiness of Alice, who writes poems, listen to what Gomez sings to his daughter: “Life is full of contradictions/Every inch a mile./At the moment, we start weeping/That’s when we should smile.”
Though encumbered with a Spanish accent that slides into Transylvania, Mr. Lane is in fine voice and brings a star trouper’s energy and polish to one wan number after another. Ms. Neuwirth, whose priceless deadpan manner is one of Broadway’s great assets, here uses it as a means of distancing herself from an icky show and a formless part. Everyone else tries not to look embarrassed, though it’s not easy in a show that relies on a giant squid to solve its plot problems, makes Uncle Fester a cloyingly whimsical sentimentalist (he’s in love with the moon) and transforms Grandma into an old acid head out of Woodstock.
That squid is the work of the wonderful puppeteer Basil Twist, who also whipped up a giant iguana, a regular-sized Venus fly trap and a charming animated curtain tassel. Fans of the “Addams” television show will be pleased to learn that Thing (the bodiless hand) and Cousin Itt make cameo appearances. They receive thunderous entrance applause and then retire for most of the night. They are no doubt much envied by the rest of the cast.
Why turn that into a musical?
The question pops up every Broadway season as one entertainment property after the next — usually a hit film — is adapted for the stage. The cynical answer, of course, is that producers count on familiar brands to lure casual theatergoers.
But what about the creative team? Where do the artists who sign on for such projects find their inspiration? In the case of The Addams Family (* * out of four), which opened Thursday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, the answer isn't terribly clear.
The show purportedly draws upon Charles Addams' classic cartoons, also the source of a certain '60s TV series about a creepy and kooky but loving clan. But while Addams seeks to capitalize on fond memories of that program — the orchestra plays a refrain from the theme song before the curtain rises — it seems more informed by the rash of movie-based musicals in the past decade, starting with The Producers.
Like that Mel Brooks behemoth and its less-funny descendants, Addams relies heavily on off-color humor and sight gags. Librettists Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice have plenty of fodder in the Addams' subversive sensibilities; they also have one of the original Producers stars, Nathan Lane, on hand as patriarch Gomez Addams. Wielding a wonderfully ludicrous Latin accent and his usual expert timing, he's the single best reason to see this production.
Sadly, neither Lane nor his similarly dependable co-star, Bebe Neuwirth— a dry, stunning Morticia, in a low-cut gown and long black wig — is given much to work with here. The jokes, however artfully executed, are seldom surprising, and making cartoon characters who worked in the context of a half-hour sitcom compelling over 2½ hours proves a serious stretch. Zachary James' croaking Lurch is funny for about two scenes; Jackie Hoffman's hunched, screeching Grandma, who inexplicably walks around singing hippie anthems, is just irritating.
The stabs at crass hilarity also seem ill at ease with the hokey plot, which provides Gomez and Morticia's teenage daughter, Wednesday — played by an alternately shrill and petulant Krysta Rodriguez — with a love interest from a "normal" family. Veteran troupers Terrence Mann and Carolee Carmello suffer gamely as the boy's stern dad and dopey mom, who are from Ohio, presented here as the land of the squares — an odd touch for a show that presumably hopes to attract tourists.
Andrew Lippa's songs are predictably generic, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch's set design predictably stylish. (The designers also are credited as directors.) Perhaps it seems snarky to observe that many will see The Addams Family more for the scenery than the music, but the family would surely approve.
The Addams Family" -- the 1960s sitcom, that is -- was famously kooky, spooky and altogether ooky. The new Broadway musical, based not on the sitcom but on assorted one-panel cartoons drawn over the years by the New Yorker's Charles Addams, is kooky but not spooky or ooky; nor is it neat, sweet or petite (as the song goes). What this "Addams Family" has is the gloweringly perfect Nathan Lane, who gamely thrusts Gomez's rapier at anything -- or any joke -- that moves. But $16.5 million has brought forth an ill-formed one-dimensional cartoon with lines and shading not quite inked in.
The ambitious producers, led by former Disneyite Stuart Oken, have come up with a double-edged potential bonanza. While their musical is derived from neither the sitcom nor the well-remembered 1991 feature film (nor its 1993 sequel), the shared title -- combined with the casting of Lane as the paterfamilias -- has attracted enormous advance sales. (Premium-priced preview audiences have thus far helped "Addams" battle "Billy Elliot" and "The Lion King" for the No. 2 slot on Broadway's weekly box office chart.) But audiences arrive expecting a musical version of the earlier Addams offshoots; without access to those scripts, the musical features the seven main characters, that spooky mansion (transplanted for reasons unknown to Central Park) and little more.
With no fresh ideas at hand, librettists Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (who paired for "Jersey Boys") hit upon a plot that was hoary back when it was used in 1922 for Broadway's long-running "Abie's Irish Rose": Find the daughter a suitor and set the severely mismatched in-laws battling. Thus, those subversively fertile Addamses are thrust into a low-level sitcom, with results several pegs below those achieved by the similarly plotted "La Cage aux Folles."
The producers made a bold step in hiring the avant-garde team of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch ("Shockheaded Peter") as director-designers. The Broadway novices came up with a lavish and delicious scenic scheme, highlighted by a grand traveling curtain that entices, surprises and humorously frames the action. They did not prove adept as directors, alas, and were quickly and publicly furloughed following poor reviews in Chicago (where "Addams" nevertheless enjoyed exceptional business). Equally unsuccessful were the efforts of songwriter Andrew Lippa, best known for an intriguingly dramatic score to the 2000 Off Broadway production of "The Wild Party."
Calls for doctoring brought forth Jerry Zaks, who in happier days scored four award-winning hits over a seven-year stretch. Zaks -- who is credited as creative consultant, with McDermott and Crouch retaining their contractual billing -- has clearly guided the rewrites and ramped up the yocks, but while the show aspires to the heights of "The Producers," the results are more comparable to "Young Frankenstein."
Serge Trujillo's choreography is emblematic of the ineffective choices: The ensemble consists of a clump of Addams ancestors, pulled from a graveyard crypt. One might suspect these folks to have three heads or five eyes, but no; they are standard British-manorhouse ghosts in Miss Havisham rags -- slim, trim, and straight from the gym (leading one to wonder how they degenerated into the fireplug-shaped Gomez and Fester). Once out of the crypt, they spend the evening adding ghostly, mirthless and unnecessary accents to ineffective production numbers.
What "The Addams Family" has, and what may prove more than sufficient to counteract critical carping, is Lane. The star is exceptionally good as the evening's ringmaster, cutting up despite mostly low-grade jokes and ineffective songs. Bebe Neuwirth is less successful as Morticia, seemingly sabotaged by the creators. (Her acting role consists mostly of comparing herself to dried plums and a goat with a beard.) Carolee Carmello fights similar odds as the straitlaced, poetry-spouting mother of the groom who is mistakenly slipped some toxic Acrimonium that sets her dancing drunkenly on the table. Veteran that she is, Carmello turns her solo into a highlight.
Krysta Rodriguez and Wesley Taylor, as the lovers, brighten the stage when given the chance; Zachary James craftily lurches through the affair as the half-dead family butler; and Jackie Hoffman, as the eccentric Grandma, seems to be acting in her own not-very-good musical.
The secret weapon of "The Addams Family" turns out to be Kevin Chamberlin, who sprinkles several handfuls of stage dust over the proceedings as Fester. "The Moon and Me," a serenade in which he soars over the stage to play with a round yellow globe, is the lone moment in which actor, material, stagecraft and Basil Twist's puppets combine to create magic. But it's a bad idea to have Fester wonder at intermission if the audience will "leave in an hour feeling vaguely depressed," and a worse one to start the show with 15 seconds' worth of that finger-snap theme from the sitcom, which turns out to be the evening's catchiest musical moment.
There is little character development -- understandably, given the lack of character -- which makes the arc of the story non-existent and robs the songs of potential impact. Just Nathan Lane, plenty of jokes, some intriguing sight gags and the audience's undisputed fondness for the Addams characters. Which, given the lack of a Broadway musical blockbuster since "Billy Elliot," might prove enough to sustain those million-plus grosses.