Buh-Da-Da-Dum (Snap Snap)
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!”
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.
THE ADDAMS FAMILY
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice; music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa; based on characters created by Charles Addams; directed and designed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch; choreography by Sergio Trujillo; creative consultant, Jerry Zaks; lighting by Natasha Katz; sound by Acme Sound Partners; puppetry by Basil Twist; hair by Tom Watson; makeup by Angelina Avallone; special effects by Gregory Meeh; orchestrations by Larry Hochman; musical director, Mary-Mitchell Campbell; dance arrangements by August Eriksmoen; vocal arrangements and incidental music by Mr. Lippa; music coordinator, Michael Keller. Presented by Stuart Oken, Roy Furman, Michael Leavitt, Five Cent Productions, Stephen Schuler, Decca Theatricals, Scott M. Delman, Stuart Ditsky, Terry Allen Kramer, Stephanie P. McClelland, James L. Nederlander, Eva Price, Jam Theatricals/Mary Lu Roffe, Pittsburgh CLO/Gutterman-Swinsky, Vivek Tiwary/Gary Kaplan, the Weinstein Company/Clarence LLC and Adam Zotovich/Tribe Theatricals by special arrangement with Elephant Eye Theatrical. At the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, 205 West 46th Street, Manhattan; (877) 250-2929. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
WITH: Nathan Lane (Gomez Addams), Bebe Neuwirth (Morticia Addams), Terrence Mann (Mal Beineke), Carolee Carmello (Alice Beineke), Kevin Chamberlin (Uncle Fester), Jackie Hoffman (Grandma), Zachary James (Lurch), Adam Riegler (Pugsley Addams), Wesley Taylor (Lucas Beineke) and Krysta Rodriguez (Wednesday Addams).
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.