Editors' pick

The Addams Family

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Editorial Review

Kennedy Center strikes up the brand in a lackluster ‘Addams Family’
By Peter Marks
Friday, July 13, 2012

From the memory-jogging opening moment (ba-da-da-dum snap-snap!) of the aggressively mediocre musical version of “The Addams Family,” audiences know they are in the embrace of that classic American genre, the brand extension.

The franchise that began with the bracingly macabre wit of Charles Addams’s New Yorker cartoons and grew progressively sillier through a mid-’60s sitcom and a pair of early-’90s movie comedies receives in this age of commercial inevitability a Broadway treatment that makes the prior adaptations seem, by comparison, like unerring genius.

Lacking stylistic coherence, a well-developed plot or even catchy tunes, this touring incarnation of “The Addams Family,” taking up residence in the Kennedy Center Opera House through the end of July, relies for chuckles almost entirely on flickers of spectator recognition of trademark shtick. Uncle Fester’s light-bulb-in-the-mouth, Lurch’s Frankenstein’s monsterishness, Cousin Itt’s sight-gag cameo are the default comic inspirations here. The giggles with which they are greeted remind you that laughter is at the most basic level a reflex.

What this vehicle is doing at a cultivated nonprofit like the Kennedy Center, and not in a space whose entire rationale is raking in dough (even if “The Addams Family,” on the back of its then-star Nathan Lane, had a merely respectable Broadway run) is a matter of some concern. Is the institution a showcase for what it regards as the best in the performing arts, or is it simply a big concrete case for shows?

In a city as sophisticated and artistically diverse as Washington -- and with a large commercial house, the National, engaged most of the time in generating cobwebs -- the Kennedy Center need not be a hog, feasting on even the second-rate stuff Broadway sends on the road. To its credit, the center has booked for substantial stays in recent summers such vital modern musicals as " Next to Normal " and " Spring Awakening ," and amplified the opportunities for sharp, locally bred work such as the just-closed revue " First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb ."

One feels for the center staffers who have to try to figure out what to offer theatergoers at times when such enlightened fare is not available. Still, on any list of imperfect entertainment options, this production, with tickets ranging from $39 to $115, does not qualify as a truly competitive alternative to “None of the Above.”

Not even the estimable exertions of Douglas Sills, who plays Gomez Addams (and is a better fit in the role than Lane was) can enjoyably fuse the creative team’s mismatched sensibilities. The enterprise feels as if assembled by factions that barely ended up speaking. The program notes that Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch -- devisers of the ghoulish New York hit “Shockheaded Peter” -- provided “original direction,” but describes the “entire production” as being “under the supervision” of longtime Broadway director Jerry Zaks. While the musical’s puppetry is ascribed to puppet virtuoso Basil Twist, subject of a recent Washington mini-festival, his imagistic whimsy seems to inform only one sequence, Uncle Fester’s second-act song, “The Moon and Me.”

That sweet number, expressing in fanciful movement and artistry the unearthly love Blake Hammond’s missile-headed Fester bears for the moon, happens to be the show’s one burst of real imagination. The rest doesn’t even rise to guilty pleasure. It’s a tedious riff on the cartoon family’s morbid take on happiness, with a ton of coffin and cemetery jokes from the laptops of smart-aleck book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who collaborated with far more savvy and conviction on “Jersey Boys.”

Their incidental plot hinges tiresomely on a stock set-up handled regularly with more skillful outrageousness on the sitcom: the visit to the family’s gruesome mansion by “normal” people. To the horror of her parents, rebellious daughter Wednesday (Lizzie Klemperer, understudying Cortney Wolfson) is determined to marry bland Lucas Beineke (Brian Justin Crum), who’s invited to dinner with his square, conventional parents (Gaelen Gilliland and Patrick Oliver Jones, understudying Martin Vidnovic). The miserable guests find marital bliss in the Addamses’ dark shadows.

McDermott and Crouch, credited with sets and costumes, mimic the cartoonist’s style without commenting on it in any eye-catching way: The production looks as if it would need a bit more dressing up to work as a haunted house in a Nebraska amusement park. The score by Andrew Lippa is a fitting complement. There’s not a memorable melody within earshot. And it is hard to conceive of a first-act finale that could top this show’s “Full Disclosure” as an exercise in anesthetizing irrelevance.

For slavish devotees of the TV show and movies, the musical doles out its share of inside jokes. After, for instance, Sara Gettelfinger’s corseted Morticia reveals a little leg, Gomez remarks on how he didn’t realize she had them. That’s the only level on which “The Ad­dams Family” works: as a musical footnote to what already existed.

“Death is just around the corner,” Gettelfinger sings at one point. On this occasion, you feel it can’t come soon enough.

PREVIEW: Andrew Lippa, the musical force behind ‘The Addams Family’
By Nelson Pressley
Sunday, July 8, 2012

It used to be audiences knew the names of the people who wrote the shows: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Nowadays, the musicals that aren’t ripping off jukebox hits often ride the high tide of big pop titles: “The Lion King,” “Spider-Man,” “Mary Poppins,” “Shrek,” “Sister Act.” Who knows composers?

That makes “The Addams Family” an interesting case as it arrives at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House this week. The $16 million musical is plainly spinning forward the franchise of appealingly subversive Charles Addams cartoons that seemed foolproof in TV and movie versions. It got mixed reviews in Chicago and was bashed in New York, despite marquee stars Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth as the mordant Gomez and Morticia. (Douglas Sills and Sara Gettelfinger have the roles now.) Remarkably, the show has been significantly rewritten prior to this tour.

Of course there is a composer in the middle of this: Andrew Lippa. And at 47, he is perhaps beginning to emerge with full force, and not just with “The Addams Family,” even though the affable Lippa calls it his biggest show to date “in all measurable ways.”

First, the saga of the franchise rewrite:

A Broadway musical of “The Addams Family” was the brainchild of producer Stuart Oken, a former executive vice president at Disney Theatrical. Long an “Addams” fan, Oken says his thinking was guided by the marriage of the cartoon “Lion King” with then-downtown director Julie Taymor, “where something unexpected yet fundamentally mainstream could come out.”

By the time the show began its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago, the mesh was off. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”) were writing the book. Lippa was writing music and lyrics. Design and direction were by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, the British duo whose wicked “Shockheaded Peter” (which they described as a “junk opera” done with the trio the Tiger Lillies) was among the projects earning international notice.

As the show moved to Chicago, Broadway veteran director Jerry Zaks was brought in. Oken is diplomatic about what went wrong, but he invokes the famous phrase that “musicals aren’t written; they’re rewritten.” And the more the team kept trying to hammer the material into shape for the Chicago premiere, Oken says, the more “chemistry started to evade us.”

The mixed reviews and gossipy reports from Chicago “sent shock waves out into the world that something was wrong,” he adds. “And it was. But it wasn’t so wrong.”

A lot of the trouble boiled down to a rewrite that nobody could figure out before New York, where the critics were tough. The plot originally focused on Wednesday, the splendidly gloomy girl who scandalizes the spooky family with her desire to date a “normal” boy. Gomez and Morticia, the creative team soon realized, didn’t have enough to do. And those were the characters people most wanted to see.

“We kept thinking we were solving it,” Oken says. “But we didn’t solve it.”

“Addams” sold reasonably anyway, even if it ended up only recouping 70 percent of its investment after two years on Broadway. (Oken says the touring versions -- it’s already running abroad, with more productions to come -- will eventually recoup the whole investment.) And the group thought the work could still be better.

The show got a moderate do-over involving a plot change, the cutting of four songs and the addition of three. Elice says the producers bankrolled a full five weeks of rehearsal, not the usual two for a tour, plus two weeks to tech the show into its first national touring venue in New Orleans.

“That came with a real price tag,” Elice says.

Of Lippa’s role, Elice points out that changes to the score are the most complicated in any show, requiring work with everyone from the book writers to orchestrator and musical director and performers. “And Andrew,” says Elice, “in a rather amazing way, said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

Lippa is still best known for his 2000 breakout show “The Wild Party,” though thanks to one of the strangest twists in musical theater history, he doesn’t even get that moment entirely to himself. Just as Lippa’s “Wild Party,” with Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Brian D’Arcy James and Julia Murney, was being produced at the off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club, Michael John LaChiusa’s “The Wild Party” was being staged on Broadway with Mandy Patinkin, Toni Collette and Eartha Kitt.

The slow evolution into his own solid professional identity may be part of why Lippa says of himself, “I was an impatient, angry young man. Now I’m a patient, angry middle-aged man.”

Lippa, who sounds genial enough, didn’t even see himself as a full-fledged musical theater composer until around 2006, when friends and colleagues urged him to focus on his own work. He cobbled together all kinds of work around his own writing projects, including music directing for Kristin Chenoweth’s concerts. (Chenoweth’s 1999 Tony Award, let it be noted, came for her turn as Sally in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” with several new songs by Lippa -- including Sally’s “My New Philosophy.”)

The guidance to just write “was a good bit of advice,” says Lippa, who was born in Leeds, England, and raised in Michigan. “It focused me, helped me push the projects faster.”

The projects are beginning to come quickly indeed. In the pipeline:

l “A Little Princess,” based on the 1905 Frances Hodgson Burnett children’s novel. A concept CD was released last fall, featuring Sierra Boggess (Broadway’s “Little Mermaid”) and Laura Benanti. The licensing process for productions has just begun.

l The Man in the Ceiling,” based on the Jules Feiffer book. Like “Princess,” it’s been in the works for some time; it was developed by Disney, then languished and now is scheduled for a reading in January.

l A commission about Harvey Milk for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, which will feature 300 voices. The piece will debut next June, with more cities already lined up to perform the non-narrative piece that Lippa calls, for lack of a better word, a “fantasia.”

l “Big Fish,” a big musical to be directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman (“The Producers,” “The Scottsboro Boys”). Based on the Daniel Wallace novel that became a 2003 Tim Burton film, the show is scheduled for Broadway next year. Oken already says, “I’m sure it’s Andrew’s best work.”

l An untitled original musical to be written with the inexhaustible John Logan (the play “Red,” the upcoming James Bond picture, and the recent screen adaptation of “Sweeney Todd”).

Lippa’s musical hallmarks? Oken likes the “emotion, humor and melody.” Lippa credits influences as diverse as Motown and everything on 1970s pop radio to Leonard Bernstein for his explorations in classical, jazz and Broadway forms. Elice describes Lippa’s music as “very catholic in its breadth. It has great heart and great wit, in that order.”

There is a bigger picture for Lippa, who has been with his partner David Bloch for 14 years (they married in 2008): He is studying to become an Interfaith minister.

“I wasn’t being of service,” Lippa explains, adding that one of the things he loves about the theater is its pluralism. “Everyone is welcomed,” he says. “And I want to take part in a spiritual life that does the same.”

He’s on track to be ordained as soon as next June, which is why the current joke around his house, he says, goes like this: “Music and lyrics by the Reverend Andrew Lippa.”