The Addams Family
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 15, 2010
Having missed the wildly successful '90s film franchise, I must confess to being out of touch with The Addams Family. I have fond memories of the '60s TV series, which was perhaps the best of the fish-out-of-water/supernatural sitcoms of that era, thanks to its high-quality cast, its memorable characters (Thing and Cousin Itt at the top of that list, of course), and, possibly most importantly, to its brevity.
Brevity is not one of the qualities of the latest incarnation of The Addams Family. The first act of this new musical comedy is a pleasant, if often mindless and more often vulgar, diversion; certainly the spectacular set and special effects (notably a delightful Venus flytrap puppet) keep us engaged even when the comedy and songs sag. But Act Two proves to be one act too many; it felt as if the show's creators had tired of playing with their toys, and instead left them to flounder on their own within a bottomless pool of cliches drawn from second-rate kids' films, sitcoms, and hackneyed musicals. Nothing interesting or witty happens during this last hour, which is surprising in that it includes three songs that are clearly intended by the producers to be show-stoppers. I was bored and disappointed and left The Addams Family, which I sincerely tried to enjoy, feeling saddened by the squandering of resources that it represents.
And what resources! The family mansion, designed by original directors Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (best known for Shockheaded Peter), is a fantastical creation, with constantly shifting walls and staircases and lots of clever details. (I especially liked the chandelier, cheekily alluding to The Phantom of the Opera, that appears first off-kilter covered in cobwebs and later straightened out and cleaned up.) Gregory Meeh's special effects and Basil Twist's puppetry—both employed far too infrequently—include the aforementioned mouse-eating plant, and an animated curtain pull that Cousin Itt briefly flirts with in what is perhaps the most charming touch in a show that is woefully short on charm.
The cast is as stellar a gathering as exists on Broadway these days. Nathan Lane is firmly in command as Gomez Addams, wringing laughs out of wan lines and pained doubletakes; though he adopts a wild Spanish-ish accent, he's playing a variation on the exasperated lovable character that has become his trademark. Bebe Neuwirth certainly looks like Morticia Addams, but she's stuck in a role that makes very little sense most of the time. She has her best moments at the top of the show, leading the company in a fun dance number; the two second act numbers that feature her, however, don't really show off her singular talents all that well. Jackie Hoffman works very hard as Grandma, who is here conceived as an ex-hippie (though she gives her age as being more than 100, which would have made her an old hippie at Woodstock). Musical comedy veterans Terrence Mann and Carolee Carmello are saddled with the thankless roles of Mal and Alice Beineke, the square emissaries from beyond Addams-land; they acquit themselves rather well, considering what they are required to do. Only Kevin Chamberlin, as Uncle Fester, is not ill-used; he's made into the piece's narrator, which actually works rather well, and gets to perform the most imaginatively staged song in the show, a silly love song to the moon.
The fundamental problem with the show may be that the Addams Family doesn't need to sing and dance; their delightful eccentricity is made for the blackout sketch, and indeed the most successful scenes in this show are the ones that move so quickly that there isn't time to contemplate what's happening, as when Morticia feeds her carnivorous plant or Gomez tells Mal about the torture chair in his basement that once belonged to Tourquemada. Musical numbers tend to halt the show rather than liven it up. Composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa's work is consistently uninspired. And book-writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman do not find a way to avoid building a conventional edifice around the cache of unconventional characters they're supposed to be celebrating.
Which may not be their fault: The Addams Family is inarguably in the Theme Park musical genre mapped out by Disney with Beauty in the Beast nearly two decades ago now; like Spamalot and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang before it, this is a completely unnecessary show that has been produced to milk more dollars from a profitable franchise with plenty of name recognition. The audience last night seemed happy enough to let the entirely predictable proceedings transport them to somewhere they've already been for a couple of hours; I guess we're living in a time when, if you can afford it, live theatre can be a novel and safe kind of comfort food. No point in complaining about this...even if the souvenirs for sale before the show seem to have more creative spark than the show itself.