Stage review: 'The Addams Family' grabs the audience from the first snap, holds on with musical laughs
"The Addams Family" isn't coy about going for the funny bone -- it takes pains to grab you with a chain-rattling high note, a conspiratorial stare, a nostalgic gotcha or a Charlie Sheen groaner. In the musical comedy now at the Benedum Center, the ookey, spooky family of page and screen soars from the graveyard to the moon to leave us laughing.
The national tour's talented cast had the opening-night crowd from "da-da-dum." Almost as one, the audience gave them the "snap, snap" back, signaling they knew the score, or at least the 1960s TV theme song, and were willing co-conspirators in the madness to come.
Led by the dashing Douglas Sills as Gomez Addams, the cast lit up the stage even when the light bulb in Uncle Fester's mouth wasn't aglow -- one of many nods to the television show. Based on the Charles Addams comics and screen incarnations that followed, the musical is as subtle as the sharp pain caused by too much laughter. But rarely has it hurt so good.
The audience on Tuesday came in a wide range of ages, some far too young for nostalgia, but the introductory number let everyone in on the joke as the strange Addamses gathered in the graveyard for a meeting of the generations, "living, dead and undecided." I hope the youngsters had proper parental preparation for the ghoulish, sexy Gomez and Morticia -- Mr. Sills, more in the realm of Raul Julia's suave movie Gomez than Nathan Lane's Broadway version, was matched in conviction by Sara Gettelfinger's Morticia, showing more decolletage than seemingly possible for all of the dancing and dipping required of her.
For those who saw the show on Broadway, a new twist for the tour ups the stakes for the couple's relationship and allows Mr. Sills more range in which to display his vocal talents (he earned a Tony nomination for "The Scarlet Pimpernel") and comic timing. Daughter Wednesday (Cortney Wolfson) has fallen in love with a normal boy -- "We are who we are, and they are from Ohio," she explains. She asks her father to keep her betrothal a secret from her mother, who despises secrets, until after the families meet at dinner that night. Whichever choice he makes, he sings, "Like a bull in the ring/like a moderate right wing/I'm trapped."
Scene-stealers Gaelan Gilliland, the Pittsburgh native playing "normal" housewife Alice, and Blake Hammond as Uncle Fester were deserved audience favorites. Mr. Hammond's Fester is the sometimes narrator of the story and sometimes moonstruck adventurer, which cues a clever number with the most effective stage effects of the night. Ms. Gilliland, as the repressed mother of Wednesday's love, Lucas, breaks out of her shell for a show-stopper to help bring down the curtain at the end of act one.
For fans in the know, the gang's all here, including dotty Grandma, handy Thing, shaggy Cousin It and loyal butler Lurch, opera singer Tom Corbeil channeling his inner Frankenstein. Their familiar presence is almost calming. When Lurch let loose with a long mono-groan, the audience clapped as if greeting an old friend.
As the uptight Meinekes of Ohio, caught up in a prank by Pugsley (Patrick D. Kennedy) and the Addamses' disturbing ways, Ms. Gilliland and Martin Vidnovic represent normalcy in a home where the siblings delight in S&M stretch torture and the father carries an unsheathed sword most of the time. The show asks us, what is normal? A father who loves his daughter and wife so much, he's torn when their happiness is at cross purposes? Will helping Wednesday marry the boy she loves alienate Morticia for good? You probably know the answer, but it's a blast to watch the cauldron of emotions bubble and brew in Mr. Sills as Gomez tries to maintain the side-splitting peace of his home.
To keep the audience in the flow, Gomez and Fester occasionally break the fourth wall to invite us along on their ride. In Morticia's song "Just Around the Corner," she sneaks in the word "coroner" for "corner" and points it out in case we didn't get it. The best such moment opening night appeared to be unintentional. Mr. Sills, who knows our town from his early days with Pittsburgh CLO, used a "yinz" reference that made some sense in context but left him trying not to crack up for a delightful minute. It made me think of Jimmy Fallon giggling his way through sketches on "Saturday Night Live," but here, the audience clapped encouragement until he composed himself.
"The Addams Family" at the Benedum Center is a joint presentation of Pittsburgh CLO and the PNC Broadway Series -- Pittsburgh, both investors in the Broadway show that had a nice run with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth originating Gomez and Morticia. That version of the show, while a hit with audiences, got a thumb's down from critics, mostly for spending too much time on Wendy's woes and her in-laws to-be.
The tour works far better by addition (Gomez keeping a secret from Morticia) and subtraction (the role of Mr. Meineke takes a substantial cut, leaving the spotlight more on the Addamses, which is why we came in the first place). The songs "Trapped" and "Secrets" are necessary and entertaining additions in the latest version. Andrew Lippa's lyrics are riddled with punchlines that stand out more than his tunes, while the book by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman ("Jersey Boys," "Peter and the Starcatcher") is tighter and has more laughs in this touring show. There are intimate family moments as well, with comments on parent-child relationships that are universal not just in haunted houses, but in any home.
The show benefits from a full orchestra and award-winning Natasha Katz's lighting design that keeps the mood creepy but not too creepy. There's sparing use of puppetry that was a bit out of control on Broadway but here works and should be a nice jolt for youngsters in attendance. Had this been a movie, the Post-Gazette Family Film Guide would say it has one quickly dropped obscenity, plenty of sexual innuendo and enough ghosts, ghouls and gleeful references to death and violence to populate a Tim Burton kids' movie. "The Addams Family" runs two hours and 15 minutes, plus intermission.
The pacing is quick and the cast dares you not to be entertained, not because of the sword in Gomez's hand or Pugsley's detonator, but because it would be a shame to miss out on all the fun.
First Published August 2, 2012 12:00 am