If Charles Addams saw the new musical about his beloved characters, he would be rolling around in his grave. In the macabre world of the Addams', this is not necessary a bad thing. The Addams Family, a new musical with book by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman (Jersey Boys), music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party), opened last night to a four minute standing ovation, which was much deserved with spectacular performances from one of the best casts ever assembled. Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth have an onstage chemistry and could go nuclear at any moment, and the supporting cast has not one weak link among the bunch.
Alas, the problem with The Addams Family has nothing to do with the casting or the music. There is, for some reason, a fundamental misunderstanding of Charles Addams' original intent of the characters. Because of that, the script in its current form, is in total need of a makeover if it is going to make the transfer to Broadway successfully. The key to any successful adaptation of the Addams Family must exist within the structure of the family unit itself. Be it the original New Yorker cartoons, television or film, each incarnation began with the family first and flushing out who the characters are and the dark underworld that is their "normal".
Not so with the new musical. The musical opens with "Clandango" a production number revolving around Wednesday becoming a woman. The script then manically moves to Wednesday's relationship with boyfriend Lucas from Ohio (without even mentioning how they met), some banter, more production numbers and then we have a dinner scene with the Addams' eccentricities... then intermission.
What is missing is that we never get to know or enjoy the Addams'. Only those who are familiar with the television show or the two movies will have a grasp of what the actors are trying to do. The audience is left to feed off those past character incarnations to understand what is happening with the musical. For a musical that is intent on separating itself from any past evolutions of the Addams, this is not a good thing. It also doesn't help the musical to stand on its own when the theme song from the television show is used several times during the course of the production.
Instead, much of the Addams Family musical feels like a improv class at Second City, with one liners flying every time Mr. Lane is on stage. As any dramaturgue would tell the creative team, Charles Addams would never have the characters uttering the lines they are given now. The humor should come out of the normalcy of how the Addams' lived their lives for many generations. It is us who are the oddities in the Addams' cartoons. For the musical, the Addams' seem to be in on the joke and the cast's continual breaking of the fourth wall does not help. Somewhere along the line in creating this piece, it seems that the initial concept became dumbed down. Spoon- feeding audiences is never a good idea. Letting the audience get involved and relate to the characters is key.
For The Addams Family musical, it is Uncle Fester (Kevin Chamberlin) who literally tells us what is happening prior to every scene, then after every scene gives the audience a recap of what they just saw. This takes time away from what could have been used for, well let's see, character development. The creative team also doesn't seem to trust their leads to handle a solo number without the use of a chorus. It seems that most every one of the musical numbers had some type of chorus popping in and out for no reason. Last I saw Bebe Neuwirth on Broadway, she was quite capable of handling a song and dance number on her own without a chorus helping her out. Also, as an example of the misunderstanding of characters for the musical, Moritcia sings a song about aging and becoming a second banana. The Moriticia that is of the Charles Addams mold would never utter such a cliché. In fact the second act as a whole should be scrapped and reworked in its entirety.
It is the cast however that keeps this production worthy of its standing ovation. Nathan Lane is sensational. Mr. Lane's Gomez is a combination of Jackie Gleason and Antonio Bandares. His comic timing is pin-point and has a stage personality that is unmatched by any actor working today. Bebe Neurwirth is also perfectly cast and if the rewrites would allow, has the ability to be the quintessential Morticia.
Much of the weight of this production falls on Kevin Chamberlin as Uncle Fester. Chamberlin is charming, funny and always seems to have a bit of sadness embedded in his character choice. It is a brilliant performance. Krysta Rodriguez's Wednesday is underdeveloped (again, not her fault) but does have some great moments with Wesley Taylor as her willingly sufferable boyfriend Lucas Beineke.
As Lucas' parents, Broadway stalwarts Terrance Mann and Carolee Carmello are sensational as usual, with Carmello belting better than she ever has before. Mr. Mann is the straight man to much of the humor and unfortunately has been given one of the worst songs of the show, "In The Arms", where he sings of having sex with the Addams' pet squid.
Hopefully the directors and creative team were watching opening night as it was Jackie Hoffman as Grandma that excelled in the two short scenes she was in. Hoffman brought down the house, connected with the audience like no other cast member accomplished, yet has no song and barely any lines. Again, if the musical focused on the family, this great talent could be showcased, along with the tall and talented Zachary James as Lurch.
The physical production of The Addams Family is gorgeous and the co-director/designer team of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch has created a unique environment for the musical to evolve. As the founders of a performance art theatre company based in London, McDermott and Crouch visuals are unparalleled to anything on Broadway . "The Moon & Me", Uncle Fester's soliloquy to his love, is breathtaking to watch and implements a performance art aspect to The Addams Family that should be expanded on.
As is the point of a pre-Broadway run, the production will surely benefit from opening in Chicago. The concept of bringing The Addams Family is without match, the show is perfectly cast and the bones of the piece are all there.
Simplifying the storyline to give us back the family is what this show needs to allow it that stature to exist in the fantastic world that Charles Addams created.
The Addams Family plays through Jan. 10 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.; Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes; Tickets: $28-$105 at 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com.