What to do tonight: Rick Elice's 'The Addams Family' has arrived at the Benedum Center

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Rick Elice has three shows either on Broadway or on tour at the moment, projects he and writing partner Marshall Brickman brought to the finish line with very different sets of marching orders. The national tour of "The Addams Family," at the Benedum Center through Aug. 12, was presented as a chance for imaginations to run wild.

What's the expression, about too much rope ...?

"The Addams Family" stumbled through a troubled Chicago run and landed on Broadway changed but not quite what the writers had in mind, much to Mr. Elice's dismay. With stars like Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth and a New York theater waiting, "We simply ran out of time," the writer said.

Despite the team's misgivings and critics' sometimes scathing reviews, "The Addams Family" ran in New York for a year and a half, with original stars Lane and Neuwirth giving way to Roger Rees and Brooke Shields.

When it came time for a tour, though, producer Stuart Oken, the fellow who had given them so much rope, came back and granted them the luxury of fixing what was wrong, plus bringing the talented Douglas Sills in as Gomez Addams as the show was being overhauled.

The major change refocused the storyline that had daughter Wednesday marrying a normal boy, nothing like the giddily ghoulish Addamses, and the introduction of his Ohio parents to her dark and demented family. Both Gomez and Morticia knew about the betrothal from the start, but in the new version, Wednesday asks dad to keep it a secret from his beloved wife.

"The daughter's situation creates an edge, and it becomes scenes from a marriage instead of scenes from parenting," Mr. Elice said. "Gomez and Morticia are on opposite sides. It almost doesn't matter what they are fighting about. Secrets fester, you should pardon the expression."

That's fester as in Uncle Fester, the kind of joke you hear a lot in the touring company show and that had Pittsburghers howling on opening night.

To explain how "The Addams Family" got from there to here, from Chicago to New York to Pittsburgh, Mr. Elice, storyteller that he is, told three tales, about how "Jersey Boys" and "Peter and the Starcatcher" were made and worked and what went wrong and right when it came to "The Addams Family."

The global phenomenon that is the "Jersey Boys," the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is still going strong on Broadway since it's Tony-winning launch in 2005 and has tours running all over the world, including the one that lands at the Benedum next month.

Mr. Elice was first approached by bandmates Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli to tell their story, using their megahits. "'Jersey Boys' was written around a particular set of boundaries set by the director [who] happened to also be the producer of the show, because Des McAnuff ran La Jolla Playhouse when he first did it. So he said, 'Here's some things you can't do. So write within parameters,' and like many children, writers like to have boundaries. It was good to have them."

"Peter and the Starcatcher" earned five Tonys, most of any play this season, while Pittsburgh native Christian Borle won best supporting actor.

For the "Peter Pan" prequel, the directors told the writers, "All we have are words, so you can take us anywhere you want and use any word trick you want, the same way James Barrie [who wrote 'Peter Pan'] did in 1904 -- alliterations, puns, high comedy/low comedy/songs, anachronism -- because that joins up with Dave Barry's modern sensibilities as a writer, which is full of contemporary irreverence, etc. So you can use all of those things at your disposal that are free: words, ideas. But we have no budget. So we're going to use all of the poor-theater techniques that Roger [Rees] knows from the Royal Shakespeare Company, that Alex [Timbers] knows from working and Downtown [at the NY Public Theater] and we're going to create something out of nothing -- nothing decorative, only representational; a rope, a stick, a piece of wood and a bucket. So that was a great rule for me or any writer."

Along came Stuart Oken, who wanted to see a musical made of the Charles Addams comic that morphed into a 1960s TV series with a catchy theme song and a series of movies.

"With 'The Addams Family,' we had a producer who said, 'Let your imagination run wild.' And he said it to the director, the designers and to us. And it was certainly very, very tempting coming off the opposite, to think on a larger campus. It's something that doesn't happen much anymore, because shows have become so expensive. But [producer] Stuart Oken, he imagined a show in a certain way, and part of his imagination was unfettered by the sort of budgetary restraints we worked with on 'Jersey Boys' and 'Peter and the Starcatcher.' "

Mr. Elice told a story about a sailboat ride with a specific destination and a change in the wind pulling it one way, and the tug of hunger pulling it toward a restaurant site, until the original destination was somewhere in the distance.

When Mr. Oken allowed the creative team to return to the drawing board and rework "The Addams Family," that original destination finally came into view.

"It's very important that everybody onboard the creative team be working on the same show, and sometimes, with the best will in the world, the show has become something different to everybody, and then there are tensions that are reflected in the material," Mr. Elice said. "So for the national tour of "The Addams Family" playing at the Benedum, what we did was clarify in our own heads what we wanted the audience to see. Principally, we wanted to have them to come and have a good time and to laugh their heads off."

"The Addams Family," a presentation of PNC Broadway Across America -- Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh CLO, is at the Benedum Center, Downtown, through Aug. 12. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $22-$71; trustarts.org or 412-456-4800.


Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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