Review: The Addams Family

BY ROBERT FAIRES

We knew that they were creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky – their snap-happy sitcom theme told us as much weekly back in the Sixties – but who knew these altogether ooky Addamses were also so, so ... traditional? That may be the most hair-raising shock delivered by the Addams Family's incarnation on the musical stage. Oh, Gomez, Morticia, Wednesday, Uncle Fester, and the rest of the macabre clan still talk a ghoulish game in Andrew Lippa's songs and Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman's book, but beneath all their cheery banter about vermin, poison, torture, and decomposing relatives is a rock-ribbed conviction in the virtues of honesty, fidelity, familial bonds, and, you should pardon the term, undying love. Strip this tribe of all its trick-or-treat trappings, and you might almost mistake it for a household of the suburban faithful.

Ah, but that's what happens once sadistic little Wednesday grows up and her eye turns from extracting howls of pain from masochist brother Pugsley to inciting vows of love from moonstruck Midwesterner Lucas. In this Addams vehicle, she wants to ditch the Goth schtick and get hitched, which means having the fam put on a show of normalcy when her sweetheart's strait-laced parents pay a visit from Ohio. (A swing state? Horrors!) And since the Addamses love Wednesday, they try, which leads to both comic complications and friction within the clan, notably between perpetually devoted Gomez and his corpse bride over keeping secrets, which Morticia considers tantamount to adultery. But eventually, all is resolved and the sanctity of truth and true love are reaffirmed, even among the folks for whom the gruesome is glorious and pain a pleasure. As the title of the 1993 film sequel, Addams Family Valuesserved as a satirical jab at conservatism, but with this 2010 musical, it would be a pretty good fit with no joke about it.

There's more than mores that have an old-fashioned feel here, though. That "oddballs playing straight for the uptight future in-laws" plot is straight out of the You Can't Take It With You playbook of 1936 (more familiar, perhaps, in its recycled form for the film and musical of La Cage aux Folles). Several of Lippa's numbers tap the same Twenties musical vein as pastiche shows like Chicago and The Drowsy Chaperone. And while the script isn't without its up-to-date humor, the crop of hokey one-liners makes it seem like Brickman and Elice wanted to revive the corpse of vaudeville with this show. Maybe the creators were paying a sly tribute to the Addams Family's origins in panel cartoons in The New Yorker in the Thirties; still, with such a subversive source – one tailor-made for a 21st century culture all about horror, gore, and the undead – it's weird that they'd sugarcoat it in the style and sentiments of a culture three generations removed.

Then we can thank goodness (or badness, as this clan would have it) that The Addams Family is unearthed here by Summer Stock Austin. The cast of aspiring musical theatre performers from college and high school infuse material that could seem past its prime with fresh blood by the buckets. The energy and enthusiasm that is SSA's stock in trade is evident here not just in the lead performers but every one of the ghostly Ancestors, the spectral chorus line that hang like dead weight around the Addams' Gothic manse (cleverly realized in Theada Bellenger's moody set) then spring to life when the music starts. With moves supplied by director-choreographer Ginger Morris, they could teach the Thrillerzombies a thing or two about groovin' in the afterlife.

More impressive than the exuberance the actors show for the spooky schtick and characters, though, is the feeling they show for one another. For good or ill, this is a musical about love, and unless you see that alive in the characters, the whole exercise will wind up, well, lifeless. What drives this production, then, are the sparks between Michael Wheeler's boy-next-door Lucas and Hannah Roberts' ghoul-next-door Wednesday (whose number "Pulled" is a powerhouse); between Benjamin Roberts' Gomez, an amusingly suave Latin lover, and Mariel Ardila's Morticia, a born vamp burning with a cool flame; and between David Peña's monstrously affable Uncle Fester and the moon. (It's a long story.) The attraction is there, and as it pulls this mate to that one, it pulls us more deeply into the show. There's something sweet in seeing these devotees of death, decay, and disaster tender their hearts to each other. So maybe the Addamses aren't as weird as they were, but love will always be strange.