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).
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.