UPDATE 12/30/09: The Producers must have read my review! The Addams Family Musical is undergoing substantial revisions. Here's a link to the story in the New York Times:
They're creepy and they're kooky
Mysterious and spooky
They're all together ooky
The Addams Family
Frink and I went to Chicago last weekend. On Saturday night, we saw The Addams Family Musical,a new show in pre-Broadway tryouts. Before even seeing the play, I went straight to the goodie counter where a cadre of busy clerks were selling over-priced souvenirs, from posters to mugs to note pads to tee-shirts, all branded with the show's logo and catch phrases, or with reproductions of the original Charles Addams cartoons.
I wasn't shopping for myself: My niece is wild about theater and was Elphaba-green with envy that I got to see this show. So, I bought her this shirt for Christmas. Now, you can't buy one kid a souvenir and not get anything for her siblings. So I also got shirts for her brother and sister. The theater had a HUGE array of merchandise. If only they had put as much thought into the musical!
The Addams Family has some of the most inspired casting imaginable. Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia. Nathan Lane as Gomez. It should have been a hoot. Unfortunately, it was dreadful. And not in the mysterious and spooky sense of the word. Now, I’m the first to admit that what I want from a Broadway musical may differ from the average theater-goer’s expectations. I’m not a big fan of huge, razzle-dazzle sets and million-dollar spectacles (I may be the only person in America who didn’t like Wicked.)
What I do expect is at least one of the following: an involving story, characters I care about (or at least enjoy watching), some memorable tunes, or some zippy dance numbers that are fun to watch. The Addams Family didn't live up on any front. The story was trite, the songs so-so, and the characters flatter than their images on the tee shirts. The sets, however, were very nice.
In interviews, the producers have said that they ignored the television series and movies, drawing their inspiration from the original New Yorker cartoons. They didn't quite follow through on that approach, but even if they had, I’m not sure it was a wise choice. According to Wikipedia, "Addams' original cartoons were one-panel gags, and he never developed any of the characters or even gave them names until the sitcom was being developed.”
If Pixar has taught me anything, it’s that the story has to come first. With a good story, everything else is gravy. But this story had no main course. It was simplistic and sit-commish, without the sly sophistication of the original cartoons or the winking humor of the TV show. In the play, Wednesday has been aged from 7 to 18. She has met a “normal” boy, and guess whose family is coming to dinner? The Normals (aka Beinecke's) are just what you would expect – staid, uptight, needing to be shaken up. On cue, Pugsley inadvertently gives one of Grandmama's potions to Mrs. Normal and chaos ensues. Or at least it's supposed to.
A good story also needs memorable characters. I don’t care how you get me involved in the characters—make me identify or empathize with them, envy them, hate them, laugh at the them, or fear them. Just make me care enough to spend two hours in their company. Wednesday is written as any stock rebellious teen (although she keeps stridently reminding us that she is wild and crazy.) Fester, who sounds and acts just like the TV actor, serves the unenviable role of a Greek chorus explaining the all-too-obvious plot, although he does have a few inspired moments. (His love song to the moon was a high point.) The actress playing Mrs. Normal/Beineke was affecting, even in a clichéd part, and her voice was terrific. Terrance Mann as Mr. Normal/Beineke was also memorabe. But the principals are given such a poor story line that a few strong performances aren’t enough to salvage the evening.
Bebe Neuwirth is one of my favorite actresses. Best known for the deadpan monotone of Lilith on Fraser she is a terrifically talented and renowned Broadway star. I've always wanted to see her in a musical. I was thrilled when I heard that she was cast as Morticia. She has the figure, the dancing chops, and the dry wit to suit the part. But she is constrained, literally and figuratively, in this show. For most of the play she is strait-jacketed by the tight gown she has to wear to carry off Morticia’s nipping walk. When the gown does come off, in a tango with Gomez, I was momentarily aroused, thinking that finally we would get to see Neuwirth do her stuff. But even the tango was a let-down. It should have been the climax of the show, the sizzling, passionate reunion of lovers temporarily parted by misunderstanding. Instead, the choreography was woefully clichéd, with Morticia at one point even playing the bull goring Gomez’s red cape. It also doesn't help that her character's big story line is a mid-life fear that she has lost her mojo.
Lane’s Gomez has a bit more to work with, including a few zingy one-liners. But the story is so slight and the music and lyrics so lackluster that even this talented star goes to waste.
The lack of story or characters wouldn't matter if the songs had been memorable. Many successful muscials have thin stories. Spamalot doesn’t have much of a plot or characters, but the music is fabulously hum-worthy. And hilarious. The Addams Family had a few okay numbers--Act One's "Full Disclosure" was memorable, and Morticia's "Second Banana" was ok, but several verged on being tedious, and at least one made me wince.
One reason Spamalot is successful is that it smacks you across the face like a wet perch with reminders of the movie. By deliberately avoiding callbacks to a beloved show, The Addams Family loses much of its appeal. (And in fact, despite the producer’s stated intentions, the musical did refer to the TV series and movies. Lane’s Spanish accent is patterned on the movies’ Raul Julia. Lurch grunts just like the original actor. Gomez and Morticia duel with swords and he swoons when she speaks French. And so on.)
At one point a snippet of the TV theme song plays as the cast gathers around a Victorian sofa in a tableau patterned on the TV show’s opening montage. It was telling that this was one of the most well-received bits in the show. When those few bars of music started playing,the audience broke into applause, and the energy in the theater soared. Unfortunately, it soon died down again.
The Addams Family is in previews in Chicago before heading to New York. I hope they will find a way to retool the show before moving it to Broadway.
And I hope the kids like the tee shirts!