Songs In The Key Of Death

Scott Suchman PhotoThe Addams Family got it backwards. Shows used to open at the Shubert, and then, improved, move to Broadway.

Instead, a flawed Addams Family played Broadway, and was made over for its first tour.

Can’t those spooky and altogether ooky people get anything right?

This weekend, The Addams Family started over again, again, for a new, non-Equity national tour, built in New Haven and debuted at the Shubert, including a community-invited dress rehearsal on Thursday evening.

Fixed it might be. But the genesis of the show brings up issues about how you judge a show’s success: Commercially, or artistically?

When the lights dim for The Addams Family, it has a distinct advantage. From the first ubiquitous notes, the audience is snapping its fingers. Even before a single word is spoken or song is sung, the fourth wall is broken.

That kind of good will is clearly the raison d’etre for this incarnation of The Addams Family. The show is a cheery riff on both the sitcom and Charles Addams’ original cartoons, mining the well-trod themes of “normal” versus “weird,” and how behind the mascara we’re all the same on the inside. Go ahead, it says, let your freak flag fly. (Literally – the show includes references to Buffalo Springfield and the Grateful Dead.)

Nothing more, nothing less.

So, the good news: The audience on opening night loved it. You could tell because at the end of the show, when Vic Mizzy’s original TV theme music reprised, they were clapping instead of snapping.

But you couldn’t help but think that the original intent was greater. The show is co-written by Marshall Brickman, a former folksinger turned screenwriting collaborator with Woody Allen (Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan) and Rick Elice, a Yale School of Drama grad who wrote the Tony winning Peter and the Starcatcher. It was co-directed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, the theatrical innovators of Britain’s Improbable Theater, who are known for their dark phantasmagorical Shockheaded Peter, which played Connecticut many years ago.

Granted, trying to marry avant-garde sensibility with Broadway goals is difficult, and musical theater is notoriously hard to pull off. With the play being viewed as in trouble during its Chicago tryout in 2009, McDermott and Crouch were replaced by Broadway vet Jerry Zaks, who made some quick tweaks before opening in New York to a tepid critical response, though a successful run, thanks to Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth.

So before hitting the road for the first national tour, the creative team did a major overhaul, adding a new sub-plot, jettisoning songs, and adding new ones, including a new opening number. Somewhere along the line a scene with a giant octopus landed on the cutting room floor.

The show now has an easy-flowing, natural dramatic arc, but it’s missing a creative spark. The result is that it’s not all that illuminating. (Or, perhaps, in the topsy-turvy, darkness-is-light world of The Addams Family, endarkening?) Much is made of the Addamses’ ghoulish abnormalities, and too-easy jokes abound: Horror at Wednesday’s yellow dress (“bright colors are for people with no imagination”) and, when Gomez make a hotel reservation, he requests one day and seven nights. Snap snap.

The Addams family has a classic musical theater plot: Goth Wednesday has fallen in love and wants to marry Lucas Beineke (co-writer Elice is a Yale grad – coincidence?), the son of a “normal” family from Ohio. (Insert joke about swing state here.) Wednesday tells dad about her plans, but won’t let him tell mom. Since Gomez and Morticia don’t keep secrets, their relationship is in peril. Morticia’s dream of visiting the sewers of Paris is in jeopardy!

Gomez is gamely played by Jesse Sharp. Keleen Snowgren’s Morticia, costumed with way too much cleavage, is clearly more talented than the role she has been handed. Jennifer Fogarty, as Wednesday, is a fine-voiced protagonist, and brings verisimilitude to teenage daughter angst.

The supporting players keep the action moving, especially Shaun Rice as Fester, who frames the show as a moon-faced Master of Ceremonies, and gets the show’s imagistic centerpiece, a beautiful scene in which he appears to take flight in a love song with the moon. It’s so imaginative it’s almost out of place here, and one can’t help but think it’s a holdout from the original McDermott and Crouch version.

Andrew Lippa’s music and lyrics are perfectly in tune with the show’s lack of ambition: they land gently and comfortably, filled with easy melodies and few surprises, either musically or lyrically.

Finally, too many of the show’s jokes are non-sequiturs, more in line with Woody Allen characters than Gomez. “What I lack in depth I make up for with shallowness,” Gomez says uncharacteristically at one point. Or, from Lucas: “I can be impulsive. I just have to think about it for a minute.”

The result is a show that “works,” but doesn’t have much to say, much less reason to be other than commercial appeal. It would have been so much more interesting to see what McDermott and Crouch could have done if given the same opportunity to see their vision to the end.

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