Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Theater Review: The Addams Family

The overture to The Addams Family begins with the old theme music for the original television series. And when the familiar four-note pickup is followed by spontaneous  audience finger-snaps, it’s a clear sign that the forearmed spectators at New York’s Lunt-Fontaine  are in on the joke. 

The new musical is based on the cartoons of Charles Addams, which appeared regularly in The New Yorker.  The drawings were, more often than not, satirical, macabre and, ironically, carefree: a group of  spooky kids fueling the flames in a fireplace in preparation for Santa’s arrival; the Addams family on their roof, pouring boiling oil down on a group of Christmas carolers; a practical-joking prison guard gleefully placing a thumbtack on the seat of a soon-to-be used electric chair; Bo Peep discovering a ransom note for her missing sheep; or a toy oil-tanker spilling oil in Central Park lake.  And, of course, that last-mentioned illustration seems spookily prescient in light of the recent tragedy in the Golf. 

From the moment the curtain goes up and Nathan Lane announces his presence  (“Ah, the intoxicating smell of the graveyard....”), you begin to appreciate the phenomenal talent on display here.  Lane, who has the showiest role and gives the most inventive mimetic performance in the production, has the skill to be snobbish and insulting while somehow always remaining affable and engaging. This actor roams the stage so energetically that it soon becomes apparent that it is he, as the ghoulish family’s  patriarch and the play’s charismatic leader, Gomez, who has the ability to pull us in, making us a part of any conspiracy he has in mind. And, oh, the shtick! If there’s a joke hidden in the script, Lane will sniff it out and deliver it with impeccable comic timing.

What actually sets the serviceable libretto (by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) in motion is the impending visit of a “normal” Ohioan, Lucas Beineke (Wesley Taylor), and his parents. Lucas intends to marry Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez), an Addams, but Gomez and  his wife, Morticia (the always reliable Bebe Neuwirth), are opposed to a conventional marriage for their daughter. (A similar plot device propels La Cage aux Folles, which was reviewed in the June edition of Nouveau.)  And, too, Morticia adds that she doesn’t want to end up like her husband’s mother, who has been living in the attic for the last twelve years.  “My mother?”  Gomez asks, “I thought she was your mother.”

Andrew Lippa has provided the serviceable music and conventional lyrics, which tell us that we have to “move toward the darkness” because, as Morticia sings, “Death is just around the corner/Waiting patiently to strike.” Meanwhile, however, there are some incidental pleasures to enjoy.  One such lagniappe is the performance of Jackie Hoffman, who, as the strident, hilarious Grandma Addams, blurts out that “five’ll get you ten there’s a couple of ninety-year-old hotties out there waiting to chow down on a Grandma sandwich.”

Kevin Chamberlin as Fester is also given a moment to shine.  In the expertly performed, zany “The Moon and Me,” he floats above the stage with a round yellow globe and sings, “When the daylight ends/And the moon ascends/I would rather be/Just the moon and me.”  In this scene and others, you have to admire the expert lighting by Natasha Katz, as well as the stage design by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, who are also credited with the show’s  direction. 

The Addams Family is, in short, an entertaining diversion.  But it will certainly not revolutionize musical theatre.  And since most of the great Broadway stage clowns (Lahr, Silvers, Durante, et al.) are gone, the production gives us another chance to admire the comic genius of Nathan Lane.  I believe, too, that watching the numerous youngsters (who make up a sizable portion of the audience) excitedly, exhilaratingly leave the theatre is actually reward enough.