Peter Marks reviews the Kennedy Center’s ‘Addams Family’

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.

The Addams Family

Music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Ellice. Original direction, Phelim McDermott, JulianCrouch; production supervised by Jerry Zaks. Choreography, Sergio Trujillo; sets and costumes, McDermott and Crouch; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Acme Sound Partners; puppetry, Basil Twist; orchestrations, Larry Hochman; music director, Valerie Gebert. With Pippa Pearthree, Tom Corbeil, Patrick D. Kennedy. About 2½ hours. Through July 29 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 202-467-4600 or
www.kennedy-center.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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