Those sunken eyes! Those cadaverous complexions! Those harmless, Halloween-y inversions of the American dream! Why, it must be The Addams Family, a clan of Goth Gothamites so tailor-made for Broadway it’s a wonder they didn’t lurch their way to the stage decades ago. Well, they’re finally here, folks, and they’re dead.
Ah, but dead is good in the topsy-turvy Addamsverse, right? It makes the Family hard to pan, in practice, if not in principle. I’m afraid I must persevere, however, because the show, for all its vaudeville pluck and abundant star quality, has a hole where its giddy, grotesque heart should be. With neither a strong story nor an endearing score, The Addams Family finds itself strung lankly between a fabulous cast and a spiffy design concept.
The combined design energies of co-directors and conceptualizers Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (Shockheaded Peter, Satyagraha) and puppetmaster Basil Twist (Symphonie Fantastique) manifest themselves in a series of gloriously 2-D pop-up-book delights, and career yuksters like “creative consultant” Jerry Zaks (who reportedly took on directing duties from McDermott and Crouch after the Chicago tryout) and Marshall Brickman aren’t about to leave any laughs on the table. Neither are seasoned spotlight sponges Nathan Lane (as mustachioed patriarch Gomez), Kevin Chamberlin (Uncle Fester), and Carolee Carmelo (as the distaff half of a midwestern couple visiting the Addamses' decrepit New York mansion). So the show doesn’t go quietly into that good night: There’s just too much desperate energy, nervous money, and twice-baked ham up there.
Every moment is a furious fight for life, an act of flop-sweat corpse puppetry worthy of Weekend at Bernie’s. Practically from the moment the curtain parts—courtesy Thing, the bodiless hand—you detect the grim, gray whiff of obligation. The Addams Family, like so many large-scale theatrical entertainments today, feels every inch a Musicalized Property. (To call it a “musical” suggests more joie de mort than the show can muster.) It’s a Broadway spectacular only because it must be, not because any of its creators felt particularly inspired. Alas, one can put the defibrillator paddles to a dead body only so many times before it starts to smoke, and long before the night is over, the air in the Lunt-Fontanne is a gritty haze of unrequited effort. “When you’re an Addams,” the ensemble sings (in an instructive, repetitive, highly unpromising opening number), “you’re happy when your toes are in the mud/You smile a bit the moment you smell blood.” Poe, this ain’t. But hey, it could be worse, considering the soupy lyrical terrain on which Andrew Lippa insists on building his flimsy, prefab songs.
The Family’s trademark necrophilia runs only pallor deep, of course. They are, first and foremost, a family, more Walton than Manson, with a fiercely monogamous mom and dad as their nucleus. Daughter Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez) and son Pugsley (Adam Riegler) are locked in often deadly, but hardly unhealthy competition. A flatulent paleo-hippie grandparent (Jackie Hoffman) is cared for at home. Chamberlin’s Fester, a single uncle “of no specific sexuality,” hangs around, keeping house and narrating colorful dinner rituals. The joke, of course, is that the Addamses, for all their quirks, are more guileless, more sincere, more traditional than the nasty normals they invariably alienate. Here, their culture-war nemeses are a couple of jewel-toned Ohioans, Mal and Alice Bieneke (Terence Mann and Carmelo), who’ve come to godless, grimy New York because their “normal” son Lucas (Wesley Taylor) wants them to meet his new, abnormal girlfriend, Wednesday.
Ah, Wednesday: College-aged in this story line, she’s lost her winningly dour, self-possessed witchiness. Now she comes off as just another image-conscious self-cutter who shops at Urban Outfitters. She’s not half as much fun as she was onscreen.
That goes double for Morticia, one of the first sexually liberated housewives in American popular culture, here reduced, in essence, to feeling bad about her neck. I mean, she’s a vampire! (At least iconographically.) With killer decolletage! To see her switch gears and rattle on about her crow’s feet is just depressing—and not in a morbid Addams way, either. When Bebe Neuwirth’s Morticia turns nag and buzzkill, De Bebester seems to enter hibernation, marking time until her second-act dance numbers roll around. Lane, a magisterial entertainer in any accent, squeezes some Tevye-esque pathos out of “Happy/Sad,” one of Lippa’s more successful numbers; South Pacific’s Zachary James nails every bit of physical business as Lurch, earning some of the night’s biggest laughs; and Chamberlin’s Fester is consistently delightful in what is essentially a narrator role. Jackie Hoffman, as Grandmama (newly hippie-fied here, for obscure reasons), is a few mugs too muggy for my taste, but this is basically a puppet show, and Hoffman is essentially a puppet.
It’s useless to overanalyze The Addams Family. This is a show that falls back on the “Thriller” dance fairly early in act one—that ought to give you an idea of just how low the low-hanging fruit hangs. In fact, that’s a consistent problem: Lippa, who displayed some very taut songwriting in his uneven Off Broadway romp The Wild Party, has developed a troubling addiction to samples. Gomez’s “Morticia” is closed with a winking “Maria” falsetto, Fester’s otherwise pleasant “The Moon and Me” touches down heavily with “Clair de Lune,” and the famous final valediction from “So Long, Farewell” plays off a dinner scene. Sure, explicit pop-cultural references are now part of virtually every form of expression, and comedy musicals are all expected to nod ironically to their forebears. But when you’re already furnished with a complete pop idiom as rich as Addamsworld, borrowing extensively feels strange and desperate. Unfortunately, that’s fairly consistent with the rest of the show. The Addams Family began life in two dimensions, on the pages of The New Yorker; in moving to Broadway, they’ve dropped one.