The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

The Addams Family: Not Creepy, Kooky, Mysterious or Spooky

By Julienne Bilker in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 21, 2009 10:00PM

photo of Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane by Joan Marcus
We were probably both the best and worst kind of people to attend the world premiere of The Addams Family musical. As lovers of the '90s movies, we consider Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, Christopher Lloyd and Christina Ricci’s performances as Morticia, Gomez, Uncle Fester and Wednesday, respectively, to be iconic. We have an above-average knowledge of the television show, and our childhood bookshelves contain multiple collections of Charles Addams drawings. Despite our love of musicals, we also understand the unfortunate nature of Broadway - lowest common denominator material is more often the rule than the exception. We were hoping against hopes that the creators of this big-budget show, previewing in Chicago prior to its spring 2010 New York opening, would have translated the unique source material into something rich and unusual that takes full advantage of its stellar casting. We were sorely disappointed.

It is as if this family has been scrubbed clean. We can forgive the plotline - Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez), now 18, falls in love with a normal boy, Lucas Beineke (Wesley Taylor). The Beinekes, a straight-laced pair from Ohio, are invited to dinner at the Addams mansion. Minor chaos ensues as the Addams attempt to help the Beinekes fix their passionless marriage. But we can’t forgive everything else, and the whole thing is even more painful when we reflect on how much talent is underused.

Bebe Neuwirth (Morticia), Nathan Lane (Gomez) and the rest of the cast work hard to mine what they can from the material - but there just isn’t enough to support them. Perhaps if more time had been spent writing for the family members themselves, rather than finding ways to use a completely unnecessary 11-person chorus as glorified set dressing, we’d be writing a different sort of review. We did enjoy some of the ensemble's choreography (by Sergio Trujillo), but we still found their presence more distracting than anything else, particularly in Morticia’s number “Second Banana.” (Sidenote: Morticia’s main plotline is about her fears of aging. Lame.) Anyway, our point about this one is: if you’re going to put Bebe Neuwirth in a dance number, LET HER DANCE. PLEASE. Maybe we just know too much - we did see Neuwirth with Ann Reinking in Broadway’s revival of Chicago, which was just about as good as it gets - but we felt robbed. This woman is an f'ing dancer with great presence. Leave her onstage by herself and let her do her thing.

Back to the big picture. The songs (music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa) are totally unmemorable - the only exception being Uncle Fester’s (Kevin Chamberlin) twice-reprised “Let’s Not Talk About Anything Else But Love,” which inspired our date to ask, “Why does this number exist?” We couldn’t have hummed any other song five minutes after it was over, which is an incredible feat, considering the family’s famous theme song. Sadly, the Addams anthem is heard just once during the show - oddly placed following the way-too-long opening number - and it seems like an afterthought. The music played during/following curtain call, however, is a theme-song remix of sorts - an exciting riff on and reorchestration of the familiar. We barely kept ourselves from screaming, “Where was this music for the last two and a half hours?!”

The jokes (book by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman) are easy, and at times, incongruously topical - we didn’t want to hear the Addams balk at Ohio’s swing state status or rant about healthcare - those issues belong in a different show. To be a little fair, there were some funny moments that didn’t work because the opening night audience wouldn’t let anything breathe. Laughing and clapping at practically everything screws with comedic timing - plus, most of the moments that received show-stopping guffaws (yes, we said “guffaws,” there’s no other word to describe this kind of inane laughter) just weren’t that funny. If the women in front of us had been wearing just a touch more perfume, maybe we would’ve been high enough to see what they were seeing. Or maybe if we had some of whatever Grandma (Jackie Hoffmann, who is hilarious but a much funnier actress than this script allows) smokes.

The production's good parts are thoroughly tempered by its problems. For example, Carolee Carmello (Alice Beineke, Lucas's mom), steals the show with the song “Waiting,” which comes toward the end of the first act. It’s an awesome performance. But we question why this huge number was written for, essentially, a secondary character, when there is nothing nearly as powerful written for anyone else. Speaking of power, the show’s best feature is its use of puppetry, particularly a giant squid that provides an excellent comedic foil to Terrance Mann’s Mal Beineke, Lucas’s dad. (Sidenote again: Mann’s rich voice is yet another thing to add to the list of underused assets.) Anyway, serious kudos to Basil Twist for creating some theatrical magic. We also really loved the set, which was designed by directors Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch. But again, when a production is overshadowed by “stuff,” there’s a problem.

In his review, Chris Jones writes about the script needing more elements of the characters’ well-known traits - we couldn’t agree more.

“At this juncture, this show pulls itself in new narrative directions so fast and so far, you don't get enough of a chance to enjoy the Addamses being the Addamses.

Perhaps the best moment of the show features Nathan Lane's genuinely likeable but still underwritten Gomez, sitting alone on a swing outside his mansion, which has been moved in this show to the middle of Central Park. He hears a squeal and then a gunshot. And his face crumples into the kind of benevolent smile that most of us get when we hear the song of a lark. That's Gomez Addams, writ theatrical by a great American comedic actor born to play the role. Whenever the show sticks to those original Addams rules, those endlessly repeatable gags of simple subversion, you find yourself relaxing into the material. Elice and Brickman can write such gags in their sleep. So put them to bed, already. Such charming little moments are all too few.”

We so badly wanted this show to be something it just wasn’t. If the audience at our performance is any reflection of New York’s audiences, the production will probably do just fine on Broadway. But for the sake of those who deserve better, cast and audience alike, we’re praying for some serious rewrites.

The Addams Family, through January 10, Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph. Tickets $28-$105 ($25 student tickets/group discounts available), 800-775-2000.