Before the curtain even came up, the audience knew what they were there for. Ba-da-da-BUMP went the music. Snap-snap went the full house. Squeeeal went the little girl two rows behind me.
The Addams Family musical, which opened on Broadway on April 8, has been roundly battered by critics as predictable and generic, as devoid of hummable tunes and dramatic tension, and as a waste of its high-powered stars, Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth.
It has also, according to the New York Times, sold more than $15 million worth of advance tickets, grossed $6.5 million in its first five weeks (including previews) and shows healthy signs of rapidly joining the less than one-third of Broadway shows that turn a profit. The touring productions are already being scheduled.
Is The Addams Family great, enduring theater? No. Is it a lot of fun, especially for families? Yes. Is it a smart recycling of a lightweight pop culture franchise with appeal across several generations of audiences? Definitely.
The Addams Family is indeed a silly show, just about as deep and shiny as the brilliantine on Gomez Addams' hair. But its sources weren't exactly Tolstoy, folks.
The Addams family was born in 1938, created by cartoonist Charles Addams in a series of whimsically macabre panels for the New Yorker. They appeared there for more than 25 years before Hollywood got interested.
Nameless up to that point, the characters were christened by Addams and translated into a wacky TV sitcom that ran for two seasons in the mid 1960s, starring John Astin as grotesquely genteel patriarch Gomez and Carolyn Jones as his vampirish wife, icy-hot Morticia. Two films in the early 1990s, The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, revived them, with Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia as more darkly sexy versions of the heads of the spooky household.
Two more TV series, one live, one animated, were made in the '90s, but the family has lain dormant since. However, thanks to cable TV, DVDs and the Internet, every rag, bone and wisp of protoplasm of our pop culture sticks around to haunt us, and kids who weren't even born when Gomez last kissed Morticia's pale hand know and love the characters.
As directed by theater veteran Jerry Zaks, The Addams Family lacks any truly macabre edge, settling for a chorus line of amiable ghosts and an impressive but not very scary monster under the bed (and another in the basement). But in its previous incarnations, the family was always more oddball than awful. And reality TV has raised the bar for weirdness and family dysfunction so high that the strangest thing about the Addamses for contemporary audiences may be how nice they are to each other.
The show certainly has some strengths, chief among them its big stars. Lane, as Gomez, is essentially playing a more elegant version of Max Bialystock from The Producers, but that's just what the audience wants. He's an actor who can project an arched eyebrow all the way to the back row of the balcony, and it's what we love him for. One could wish he had more great lines, but he makes the most of what he has.
As for Neuwirth, playing Lilith on Cheers and Frasier for all those years was perfect warmup for Morticia. Neuwirth's lean lines, ivory skin and feline eyes make her look as if she minced right out of one of Addams' drawings in that octopus-inspired frock. Her throaty purr is perfect counterpoint to Gomez's wisecracks, and in the second act, during Tango de Amor, she gets to hike up that skintight skirt and remind us she's a sizzling dancer.
A less widely known actor, Kevin Chamberlin, just about waddles off with every scene he's in. His Uncle Fester is a smiling agent of chaos, overcome with desire for the moon, a lunatic lust that inspires one of the show's sweetest and most surreal scenes, a Cirque du Soleil-style The Moon and Me.
Speaking of surreal, the sets are terrific. The family's ramshackle mansion is cleverly rendered with shifting staircases and walls, the velvet curtain serving to narrow the space for intimate scenes, then opening up on such delights as a Manhattan skyline at night. (The Addams house is somehow, in this version, hidden in the middle of Central Park.) Special effects are more charming than spooky, like the entr'acte, a dance between Cousin Itt and a curtain tassel.
The music, alas, can kindly be described as serviceable. Morticia's Act II opener, (Death Is) Just Around the Corner, is fun, and I admired the rhyming of "palaver" and "cadaver" in When You're an Addams, but the show's tone stuck with me more than the tunes did.
The Addams Family's biggest weakness is its plot, which revolves around daughter Wednesday, now almost grown, falling in love with a normal — whatever that means — boy from Ohio and bringing him and his family home for dinner.
Instead of a hollow-eyed, laconic child in pigtails, Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez) is now a temperamental, fashionable Goth girl (I saw a pair of her buff-colored spats in a Manhattan shoe store window the next day) who wouldn't look out of place in a suburb near you. And her problem is one every single teenager in the world can identify with: She finds her family hopelessly embarrassing.
Flimsy stuff upon which to weave a full-length musical, and I wished the Addams clan had had a more bracing adversary than the stereotypically striving parents of Wednesday's boyfriend. But it's a story line made for tweens; at the performance I attended, some girls in the audience already knew the words to Crazier Than You, the rock-flavored duet between Wednesday and her love.
So, kids covered; baby boomers will dig the pop culture references and Grandma's recasting as a (very) aging hippie given to reminiscing about helping John Lennon out with his songwriting at Woodstock; the grandparents will like the show's nods to Addams' cartoons, including its final lines (not to mention a show with no naked bits or nasty language).
The Addams Family didn't please many critics. But for sale out in the lobby were T-shirts with Wednesday's somber mug and her signature line, "I do not have a sunny disposition."
They were selling a lot of T-shirts.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.