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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mighty like an Addams

In the end, Lurch gives away the secret. As the Addams family – extended by dead ancestors and soon-to-be in-laws – gather in a cemetery, the saturnine butler unexpectedly breaks into “Move Toward the Darkness.” The refrain’s opening strains put me in mind of a different number: Ethelbert Nevin’s “Mighty Lak’ a Rose,” written in 1901 and popular enough to figure into O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! thirty years later.

Is the Addams Family number intentionally meant to echo the older song? I doubt it. But I believe composer Andrew Lippa was aiming for that early-1900s feel. The secret of The Addams Family as a Broadway musical is that it’s a Broadway musical from nearly a century ago.

Certainly the plot device added for the current touring production screams antiquity. Daughter Wednesday confides in her father that she plans to get married, but swears Gomez not to tell her mother. Gomez never has kept a secret from Morticia, and fears recrimination should she discover his duplicity – as deftly laid out in a new song, “Trapped.”

Hardly the stuff of major conflict, but it resonates nicely with the title character of 1910's The Quaker Girl, who set the plot in motion by committing the heinous act of sipping champagne. And the lovers wishing to bring together their very different families resonates with the great 1919 musical Irene.

But the true foundation of this show is in the Princess Theatre musicals, a succession of shows written from 1915 into the early ’20s. They were written to suit a 299-seat house, and thus were scaled down in all aspects. By focusing more closely on issues of character, they set into place a number of enduring conventions. The Astaire-Rogers films are Princess-inspired. So, it could be argued, is The Drowsy Chaperone.

The stories were created by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, the latter working as lyricist but imbuing the stories with his sensibility (and you’ll find the plots reworked into his novels). Jerome Kern wrote the music, his Viennese sensibility having gained enough blue notes and syncopation to achieve an American flavor.

The Addams house, set smack in the center of Central Park, is seen from outside and in, the inside scenes a marvel of flying flats and sliding panels, with a heavy maroon curtain to mask one side or the other when necessary.

Just as the house becomes a character in The Addams Family, so too does it play a part in the Bolton-Wodehouse-Kern Oh, Lady! Lady!! (1918), where the scurryings of a man and his two fiancées (one of them an ex-) require a number of stairways and doors.

Oh, Lady! Lady!! also features a song titled “Moon,” sung by “Miss Clarette Cupp and Ensemble.” It’s only fitting that the Addams Family moon song should be given to banjolele-toting Uncle Fester, whose swimming-costume-clad antics, with a chorus of starfish chorines, is as satisfying a tribute to yesteryear’s Broadway as we’re likely to see.

And if his crush on the moon leads him to rocket to its core and become the apparition that smiles down on us nightly, who are we to gainsay his ambition?

In films like Simon – in which Alan Arkin is brainwashed into believing he’s an alien – and Lovesick, in which the ghost of Freud tries to help smittin shrink Dudley Moore – writer Marshall Brickman showed a keen sense of the comedy wrought by clashes of class and culture. He and co-writer Rick Elice won all kinds of awards for Jersey Boys before penning this show.

Headlining the tour are Douglas Sills and Sara Gettelfinger, whose chemistry as Addams père et mère is exquisite. But they’re up against not only Blake Hammond, whose Fester is a scene-stealing marvel, and Crista Moore channeling Barbara Harris as the strait-laced, love-starved Alice Beineke.

In the old days, the chorus would have comprised a bevy of bathing beauties and their tennis-flanneled swains. Here it’s an ensemble of ghostly ancestors – shades of Ruddigore! – whom Fester has enlisted to help secure the romance (and, of course, fill out the numbers).

All of which combines to give The Addams Family an odd aspect that could be said to be in keeping with the pursuit of oddness that’s a theme of the show. We expect something bigger. We’ve been Wickeded and Phantomed and Spider Manned into expected huge casts and eye-popping effects, but this show maintains an almost quiet charm about itself, intentional creepiness aside.

In the role of “normal” parent Mal Beineke, Martin Vidnovic has to make us believe that he reluctantly achieved the buttoned-down persona he displays, and that the Grateful Dead-loving free spirit still lurks within. He does an excellent job, helped by the number “Crazier Than You,” which is important: his journey is the backbone of the show.

The original comics thrived in the pages of The New Yorker, long an intellectual sop to the commuters of Fairfield and Westchester Counties. These are the Mals who gave up their artistic pursuits in order to achieve comfortable livings, but who would like to think that there’s still some craziness inside. The Addams Family assures them – and us – that even the most eccentric of families face the challenges given to us all. But we can enjoy vicariously joining them in their unconventional solutions, even if they seem as far-fetched as a flight to the moon.

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