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'Addams Family' still altogether ooky

The Addams Family adds three new songs and strengthens the plot. Cortney Wolfson, center, plays Wednesday. She is flanked by Douglas Sills as Gomez and Sara Gettelfinger as Morticia.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The Addams Family adds three new songs and strengthens the plot. Cortney Wolfson, center, plays Wednesday. She is flanked by Douglas Sills as Gomez and Sara Gettelfinger as Morticia.

The Addams Family seemed to have everything going for it when it arrived on Broadway in 2010: Iconic, beloved material based on the cartoons of Charles Addams from the New Yorker. A high-powered creative team led by avant-garde director-designers Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott. A starry cast topped by Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth in the leading roles of Gomez and Morticia.

Yet the musical had a rough time of it, getting panned by most critics. Only the presence of Lane and Neuwirth kept the show alive, and it managed to eke out a decent run, scheduled to end on Dec. 31.

Now The Addams Family seeks to make amends with its national tour, which comes to the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa this week.

"We overpromised but underdelivered on Broadway," says producer Stuart Oken, 60. "But we got a second chance because we succeeded enough and our brand was strong enough. So, for the tour, we have a vastly rethought show with a lot of new material, new book scenes and a major new story for the two principal characters."

Much of the impetus for the changes comes from Jerry Zaks, the four-time Tony Award-winning director who took over from Crouch and McDermott after the show had a troubled tryout in Chicago in 2009. Zaks was able to tweak the Broadway production, but he has totally revamped the musical for the tour.

"There are three songs in the show now that aren't in the show on Broadway, and there are four songs in the Broadway show that are not in the version that's on the tour, so we cut four and added three. Two other songs are substantially revised," composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa, 46, says.

A bizarre plot point involving a squid — including the song In the Arms (of a squid) — is completely gone from the musical, which has a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, whose previous effort was the triumphant Jersey Boys.

All the changes stem from a rewrite of the relationship between Gomez and Morticia and their daughter, Wednesday. "We found a story beat that we hadn't found before," Oken says. "Gomez gets caught between his kid and his wife, and ultimately he has to ask Morticia for forgiveness. It opened the door to a much stronger central narrative, which, I believe, makes the show work in a way it didn't before."

While the tour, which premiered Sept. 15 in New Orleans, incorporates the revised book and score, the Broadway show continues unchanged, with the squid intact. Future productions will reflect the tour.

Oken says the Broadway production of The Addams Family cost $16 million and will not recoup its investment when it closes, but he expects it eventually to be profitable with revenue from the tour and other stagings.

Addams' grotesque cartoons have had many incarnations through the years, from the popular TV series in the '60s to three movies to video games and even a pinball machine. Oken says he first looked into turning them into a musical about 10 years ago.

"I love the notion of defining normal," he says. "Who's strange and who isn't? Are we not all somehow strange in our own way, and isn't that a good metaphor for acceptance?"

However, the familiarity of the material caused some problems. "I think it's a challenge with any piece that the audience has great affection for," the producer says. "How to give them what they want but do it in a fresh and original way."

Exhibit A: the TV show's theme song, featuring harpsichord and finger snaps. Originally, the song showed up in the musical about 20 minutes into the first act. Now it comes right at the beginning.

"What we learned is that the audience wanted to meet these characters the way they know them," Lippa says. "The audience has a very strong memory of them, and nothing is stronger than that theme music. So we put it at the top of the show."

For the tour, Douglas Sills and Sara Gettelfinger star as Gomez and Morticia. Sills, who made his mark as the dashing hero of The Scarlet Pimpernel, is quite different from Lane, a consummate comic actor but never known as a great singer.

"In retrospect, as brilliant as he (Lane) is, as great as he was, as much as he did for the show, the show seems to fit a slightly more romantic leading man," Oken says. "The songs are now being sung with a different vocal ability. I guess I would say that Douglas is now the prototype for the part."

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

The Addams Family

The musical opens Tuesday and runs through Oct. 23 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa. $38.50-$79.50. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

'Addams Family' still altogether ooky 10/15/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 17, 2011 1:36pm]

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