April 17, 2010

How They Murdered "The Addams Family"

The word of mouth was so bad on The Addams Family that I went into the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre determined to give the show the benefit of the doubt.  I was prepared to praise the show, not to bury it. 

After all, it’s a new musical, which is always welcomed. The cast (lead by Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Kevin Chamberlin, and Jackie Hoffman) seemed perfect for the parts of the deadpan and death-loving clan that cartoonist Charles Addams created in The New Yorker 70 years ago.  Book co-writer Marshall Brickman, who collaborated with Woody Allen on the films “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” obviously knows his ways around a joke.  Composer Andrew Lippa has shown he can write show tunes. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo has one of the hottest dance cards in the business. And they even recruited the innovative puppeteer Basil Twist to animate some of the less-human members of the Addams household. So could the show really be that bad?  In a word, yes.

The evening got off to a good start at the performance my friend Mary Anne and I attended.  The Lunt-Fontanne is a huge house and it was literally buzzing with anticipation. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a theater where you could feel the excitement like this,” Mary Anne said as we made our way to our seats. 

That energy amped up just before the curtain rose, when the orchestra began playing the distinctive “Ba da da dum, snap snap. Ba da da dum, snap snap ” that legions of Baby Boomers and later disciples of TV Land instantly recognize as the theme song of the old “The Addams Family” TV show.  People started snapping their fingers along with the music.  “I love this song,” shrieked the woman sitting next to me.

The show’s true opening number which introduces the characters, and their ghostly ancestors, brought to zombie-life by an 11-member ensemble, doesn’t stand a chance by comparison.  And doesn’t really try. The tunes are ho-hum and the lyrics so predictable that the woman sitting next to me got a kick out of racing ahead to finish the sentences before the singers did—and she was right every time. (Click here to hear Lippa himself perform a few selections.)

But as pallid and pastichey as it may be, the music isn’t the show’s biggest problem. What really murders The Addams Family is the lack of a compelling book or believable characters. Yes, I know the Addams started off as cartoons but they’ve got to be more than that if we’re going to be asked to care about them for two and a half hours instead of the 20 seconds or so it takes to read a cartoon panel.

Seemingly unable to come up with a story on their own, Brickman and his co-writer Rick Elice borrow the one from La Cage aux Folles about a meeting between an unconventional family and a conservative one when their kids fall in love. But even then, they’re not sure how to develop the plot, so the characters just drift on one after another and perform little bits of business. Periodically, Chamberlin’s Uncle Fester steps in as narrator and attempts to stitch the dead parts and the few lives ones together into a Mel Brook’s-style Frankenstein of a narrative. When Brickman and Elice can’t think of a joke, they throw in the f-word or some potty humor.

Troupers that they are, Lane and Neuwirth play above the material. He, as family patriarch Gomez, delivers even lame lines with his usual expert timing, although he seemed a big subdued at the performance I attended. She, as matriarch Morticia, looks drop dead gorgeous in a skintight Gothic gown, which undercuts all the lines she’s given that lament her growing old (click here to read an in-depth interview the New Jersey native gave to the Newark Star-Ledger)

It should be a punishable offense that the show shortchanges their stage time to make room for the “normal’ Beinke family. The interlopers are played by Terrence Mann, Carolee Carmello and Wesley Taylor, all fine actors but we came to see the Addams not their Beinekes.

The cleverest thing on stage is the funny-house set, which delivers the spookiness and kookiness you want from The Addams Family and was designed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch. The duo, who are best known for the fractured fairytales musical Shockheaded Peter, are also listed as the directors of The Addams Family, although the veteran director Jerry Zaks was brought in after the Chicago tryout to add some Broadway razzle dazzle. 

I wish I’d seen McDermott and Crouch's original version of the show. The Broadway production isn’t really aimed at people like me or other critics who get to see a lot of stuff and are looking for shows that offer something different. Its aim is to offer a big splashy show, with familiar characters and a famous star that will appeal to a far broader audience that is looking for a mindless good time. 

That may not add up to a smart show but it does seems to be a smart business strategy. The audience at my performance responded with delight. And, according to the New York Times, the show already has a $15 million advance (click here to read the article, although you should know it has plenty of spoilers), which means the producers may make another killing.


Mark (kalel80806@hotmail.com) said...

The original wasn't much better, I'm afraid -- I saw it several weeks into the Chicago tryout (it had already "officially" opened at that point, but I don't think the announcement about Zaks' involvement had been made yet - I'd have to find my ticket stub to be sure). I've been trying to piece together the differences, what Zaks changed, and here are a few I've been able to come up with:

1. The TV theme song didn't start the show; the overture still sounded like several utilities strung together (several changes and the outmarch were identical, so I'm guessing the NY overture had yet to be written). The TV theme song was inserted into the show at about the mid-point of the first act; after the Beinke family was lost in the park, they sighted the house (a large flat upstage), and the father said something to the effect of "I wonder what kind of a family this is to have a house in Central Park?". The TV theme played, the flat fell, and there were the Addamses in the famous pose. It may have been a fairly recent addition (Chris Jones alludes to it in his review, but it felt very dropped-in-at-the-last-minute, so maybe the idea was tried a few different ways?); the creatives were all pretty adamant that the show was based on the cartoons and not the TV show at first . . . Zaks probably (and rightly) decided to give the ticket-buyers what they came for right up front.

2. The opening number throughout the Chicago run was called "Clandango" . . . and it was pretty strange. It sounded like a bullfight, and was all about introducing the chorus of ancestors, who had risen from the grave to observe a ritual; Wednesday being "annointed" as a woman (they chopped off her pigtails during the number). It was all rather grim. The new number is a considerable improvement, believe it or not.

3. Morticia's big number was called "Second Banana", and every critic in Chicago singled it out as the worst in the show. I'm not sure that's fair . . . it actually wasn't that bad (it's one of the only melodies I remember). However, Morticia was much whinier in the Chicago version, not as afraid of getting older as she was her looks fading. The song just really didn't fit the character, and nobody really liked a whiny Morticia.

4. The last scene included a rather long (and poorly choreographed) swordfight between Gomez and Morticia that signaled that she had gotten her mojo back. It happened right before "In the Arms", I think. I understand it was cut - it should have been.

5. Whatever's happening in the picture where Grandma is dressed as a Nurse and Fester is holding a football did not occur in the Chicago tryout.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

If you thought the Broadway version was bad, you should have seen what I saw in Chicago. The Broadway version is significantly improved!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Mark and Steve, thanks so much for the Chicago comparisons. It's going to be interesting to see how this one plays out. And they still seem to be making changes since there is apparently much less profanity in the show now than there was when I saw it just two weeks ago.