If you caught the much anticipated/deeply disappointing debut of The Addams Family during its pre-Broadway run here in 2009,you know the show was troubled.
Andrew Lippa's score shortchanged Morticia, who didn’t have any good songs. The chorus of dead ancestors had no purpose in the family plot except that of elaborate window dressing that distracted from a story that wasn’t so much about the Addamses as it was about the Ohio-normal Bieneke family trapped chez Gomez.
This time around, The Addams Family is a silly, macabre delight from start to finish. Lippa has reworked his score substantially and for the better (gone is Morticia’s ill-advised “Second Banana” song, replaced by a witty vaudeville soft shoe, “Death is Just Around the Corner".) The iconic snaps are now front and center – ba dada dum bum bum and although those classic ooky spooky TV lyrics are nowhere to be heard, the audience is primed from the opening notes of the overture to embrace the world based on Charles Addams' dry, mordant and marvelously funny cartoons.
Early on there’s a sightgag involving rigor mortis that captures the contradictory spirit of the show. That contradiction comes from making light of darkness, as the show keeps an affectionate death grip on over-the-top ghoulishness defined by death, torture and dead flowers while casting an evil eye upon the likes of puppies, unicorns and rainbows. Yes, the jokes are as cheesy as Wisconsin (“Little Wednsday’s growing up. She’ll be Thursday before we know it.” ) but The Addams Family has no pretentions to being any deeper than a shallow grave. Narrated by the cueball-bald and round Uncle Fester, the show is self-aware enough to be clever without being pretentious about it.
It is also pocked with philosophizing that, while not exactly up there with the profundity of Aristotle and Plato, has a certain unexpected, undeniable wisdom to it. (“Normal is an illusion. What’s normal f or the spider is disastrous for the fly.”) Finally, the show both looks and sounds terrific – if producers cut cost-saving corners (as is so often woefully the case) before sending The Addams Family out on the road, they aren’t apparent. The sets are creepily eye-popping, from the Central Park grove (where the white-bread-and-mayonanaise conventional Bienekes become lost) to the frightfully decaying home of the pepper-and-salsa Addams clan (where the décor tends toward Spanish-Inquisition-chic).
All of the leads shine with dark firepower in their various solos, but among a cast of excellence, there are several standouts. As the “strange, fat kid” Pugsley, Patrick D. Kennedy – who can’t be more than 11 or so – brings a startlingly huge belt and equally fervant emotion to “What If,” a song of epic torment (“What if she never tortures me anymore/What if she never nails my tongue/to the bathroom floor?”) and range. As Fester, the man in love with the moon (and ultimately, the man on the moon), Blake Hammond and his banjo deliver a plaintive, Clair de Lune-infused sweetness to the impossibly high falsetto of “The Moon and Me.”
It doesn’t deter from The Addams Family that the plot is a familiar one, with echoes of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, La Cage Aux Folles and You Can’t Take it With You. To wit, after falling in love with Lucas Bieneke (Brian Justin Crum), Wednesday (Cortney Wolfson) invites his parents (Martin Vidnovic and Crista Moore) to dinner.Shenanigans ensue as the ultra-conservative Mal Bieneke and his repressed, bad-poetry-spouting wife Alice are fish out of water clashing with the passionate Morticia and Gomez and their mansion of strangeness.
As Morticia, Sara Gettelfinger has a tough act to follow (Bebe Neuwirth originated the role), but she’s a siren through and through, slinky, sultry and – with “Death is Just Around the Corner” – show stopping. Douglas Sills’ Gomez is her match, brandishing a rapier with the panache of a Spanish dragoon and tango-ing with an over-the-top sensuality that’s as slick as a crime scene full of stabbing victims.
Holding the plot together with her troubled romance, Cortney Wolfson’s Wednesday alternates between the deadpan, living-corpse stone-face wrought of her genetics and the giddy, light-hearted happiness of an ingénue in love.
Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s much-improved book will have you giggling when you aren’t shuddering. Which is precisely what Chas Addams must have intended when he penned his diabolically amusing cartoons.
For additional reviews of Broadway in Chicago productions click here (La Cage Aux Folles), here (Rock of Ages) here (Mary Poppins), here (Next to Normal) here (Working) here (rain), here (Les Miserables), here (9 to 5), here (Wicked) here (Traces) here (Billy Elliot), here (The Addams Family), here (In the Heights) and here (A Bronx Tale ).