Friday, October 5, 2012
Theater review: The Addams Family at the Music Hall at Fair Park
This musical provides a belly full of laughter that will linger long after you've left the theater.
FAIR PARK For the last thirteen years or so, Broadway has been saturated with musicals that use motion pictures as its primary source material. Creators fashion, tinker, and build a musical score and book around films. There has been a sea that has gushed upon the Great White Way with a wave of lavish hits and mega flops of movies transformed into stage musicals. Just this week the Cyndi Lauper/Harvey Fierstein musical Kinky Boots, based on the 2005 British film, started it's out of town tryout in Chicago. Last season's big Broadway hits (and misses) included the musical versions of such films as Newsies, Once, Sister Act, and Ghost.
Now wrap your brain around using cartoons, animation, comic strips, and television all heaved into one big bowl and create a tasty dish of a musical. Well now that narrows down the list of using existing material to create musicals greatly. Sure, there have been musicals built around cartoons, comic strips, and animation. Take for example the comic strips of Annie, Charlie Brown, Casper, and Lil Abner that mutated from newspapers into stage musicals. From animation we have had Disney's Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and Tarzan hit the stage boards. The first two hit the bull's eye while the latter two crashed with a loud thud, arriving DOA on Broadway with scathing reviews and mediocre box office. Shrek also missed the mark artistically, and the dreadful 101 Dalmatians never made it to Broadway.
But what about a comic strip that became a cult TV show, several cartoons, two motion pictures, and now finally a Broadway musical? Now the list shrinks even smaller. This leads us to The Addams Family.
We first met this macabre family in 1938 as single panel cartoons drawn and created by Charles Addams. He would draw them until his death in 1988. In 1964, ABC turned the cartoons into a television series that ran until 1966. The TV series actually holds up quite well all these years later with its outlandish characters and campy humor.
Hollywood composer Vic Mizzy created the theme song that included those infamous finger snaps and Lurch's deep voice speaking single words. The song would become one of the world's most known themes ever penned for a TV show. This family would have a second TV series resurrection in 1998 on the Fox Family Channel, lasting only one season. Addams' creation would also become Saturday morning cartoons in various incarnations in the 1970s and early 1990s.
In 1991 Paramount Pictures brought this "Kooky/spooky/ooky" family to the silver screen, starring Raul Julia and Angelica Huston. The film was a huge box office hit, making it the seventh highest grossing film of 1991. A sequel came in 1993 titled Addams Family Values. For this film the creators actually lifted several gags straight from the single panel cartoons and placed them on celluloid. It too became a box office smash.
Fun antidote here: In the film, Gomez (Raul Julia) reports to the police station to try to get them to save his brother (Uncle Fester) from the grips of his evil wife Debbie. Playing the Police officer at the desk is none other than Nathan Lane who would later originate the role of Gomez on Broadway. A third film script was put into pre-production, but Raul Julia's unexpected death ended the film's future.
Then, in 2007, Addams' cartoons were metamorphosed into a stage musical. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice wrote the book with Andrew Lippa composing the show's score.
A workshop and private industry presentation was held in August 2008. The production then had its out of town tryout in Chicago from November 2009 to January 2010. It was well documented in the New York papers about the high drama that was swarming around the production while in Chicago. Musical numbers and songs were sliced right and left with new ones constantly inserted. Book scenes were reworked over and over again. Then there was the backstage gossip of Bebe Neuwirth having huge battles with the directors, book writer and composer over the direction her character was heading. It only got worse as they kept changing songs for her to sing in order to help her character Morticia reach the same crowd pleasing level as Gomez. All these problems followed them to Broadway. The creative process became so distressing that the producers even brought on board one of the best directors of musical theatre comedy, Jerry Zaks, as a creative consultant to help shape the show.
The Addams Family finally arrived on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, opening in April 2010 (at a budget reported to be $15 million). Needless to say the Gotham critics, already drooling with anticipation from all the gossip heard from the Chicago try out, gave the musical scathing, brutal reviews.
But even with the bad reviews, it consistently played to 100% capacity and grossed third only to Wicked and The Lion King each week since it opened in previews. It would finally close in December 2011 after 725 performances.
It received only two Tony Award nominations, "best score" and "best featured actor." Even though Nathan Lane was highly praised in all the New York reviews, he failed to gain a nomination. In a delicious twist of mischievous fun, Lane and Neuwirth appeared as presenters at the 2010 Tony Awards. They took some snappy comic pot shots at themselves not getting nominated and the brouhaha over their show.
Now this musical about a family that would not be invited to George Bush's ranch for a BBQ is a national tour that arrived at the Music Hall at Fair Park Wednesday evening.
There seems to be a new trend when it comes to taking an original Broadway musical on the road. It is expected that there will be changes in regards to scenery, lighting, costume and special effects. Because the original was on home turf, nothing had to be taken out of the theater. But, in going across the nation, they understand that no two theaters are the same. Thus the tour's design elements must fit somehow on a different stage at each stop.
But now the original creators will take a look once more at the material, and now are beginning to edit or add the existing material in book and score. They cut songs, write new ones, change the book, the arc of characters, and so on. All this can be said for the national tour of The Addams Family.
Several songs that were in the original Broadway version have been cut, such as: "Where Did We Go Wrong" (sung by Morticia and Gomez), "Morticia" (sung by Gomez and Male Ancestors), both in act one. In the second act, they threw out "Let's Not Talk About Anything Else But Love" (and its reprise sung by Mal, Gomez, Fester, & Grandma); and "In the Arms" (a duet with Luke`s parents Mal and Alice). For the national tour they composed two new songs for Gomez, "Trapped" and "Not Today."
It turns out that Jerry Zaks and the original creative team looked at the Broadway version and wanted to retool the show once more when the tour debuted in Louisiana. The song, "In the Arms," on Broadway dealt with a huge squid puppet. That was out because it made no sense and stopped the flow of the show dead in its tracks. They felt with Douglas Sills and Sara Gettelfinger in the lead roles, they could really pump up the sexual chemistry and sensuality of the couple than was lacking in Lane and Neuwirth's work in New York. They overhauled the book as well. They focused more on creating conflict within the Gomez marriage to give the characters a better arc, thus the creation of Gomez's new songs. They also used the ancestors much more on stage than in New York.
I read all the New York reviews when it opened on Broadway, read all the gossip columns on the nightmarish journey this show had, both in front and behind the curtain. So I walked into the Music Hall expecting to see a corpse of a musical. Like the saying goes: Don't believe everything you read or hear, judge it for yourself. I must confess this musical is deliciously hilarious with a dang pretty solid book and a very enjoyable score with several terrific numbers.
Brickman and Elice's book is actually loaded with great laughs. There are some hysterical zingers that refer to topical events and people that got rollicking laughter from the audience. They use that well-worn theme of love and parents. But who is "normal" within the two families? Wednesday has fallen for a human boy with parents from Ohio (which served as a gut busting ad-lib for Gomez Wednesday night). The first act is much stronger than the second. There are a few scenes in that second act that led the audience on a path they really didn't need to travel on. But thankfully it got back on track. The one-liners whiz back and forth, generating an endless evening of laughs.
Andrew Lippa's music and lyrics do have a familiar ring to them if you are familiar with his past scores, such as the Off-Broadway The Wild Party and John & Jen.
The score is shrouded in Spanish/Latin/Argentinean musical themes. But there are also pop, vaudevillian, and classic Broadway compositions within the score as well.
The score, for the most part, is exceptionally well crafted. Several stand out songs include "When You're an Addams," Gomez's two new solos, "Trapped" and "Secrets," "Pulled," "But Love," "Full Disclosure" (which does have overtones of "Both Reached for the Gun" from Chicago), "Just Around the Corner," "The Moon and Me," "Not Today," "Tango De Amour," and "Move Toward the Darkness." Sure, there are some songs that are a tad clunky and seem to slow the pace and book flow, but overall the score is much better than some of the recent scores that have hit Broadway.
The design elements range from "WOW" to "eh." I was surprised to see the use of so many backdrops. There are physical pieces here and there, such as doors, staircases, chairs, dining room table, etc. But the painted backdrops, while beautifully done, look slightly lifeless, and anytime an actor passes by or behind them, they wiggle in the wind. The cemetery has only one real crypt, while the rest of the tombstones are painted cut outs. However, the massive iron gates are spot on. Taking a hint from the design of Phantom of the Opera, the scenic designers, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, created plush, massive blood red curtains that drape all over the proscenium. They are pulled and shaped throughout the evening for scene changes and to take us to different parts of the Addams Mansion.
The best costumes are worn by the ancestors, also designed by McDermott and Crouch. Each one represented a different era, but all constructed in white fabrics. I so wished that Morticia's tight gown resembled more the original TV series and film version. It needs to be in black satin with glistening beading. Instead it looks to be made of coarse cotton with lackluster shades of black and a hint of lavender. Gomez fares better in an elegant, sleek black suit that resembles the cartoon Gomez version very well.
Natasha Katz's lighting is, as usual, spectacular for this production. Having seen several of her Broadway credits (including her Tony award winning design for Aida), she does not fail here whatsoever.
The stage is saturated with rich hues of purples, lilacs, blues and greens, among other colors. For several key moments she zeroed in on the actor's face with precision lighting focus and design to give that actor's inner dialogue an extra oomph and pizzazz.
She also marvelously designed around the puppetry and magic created by Basil Twist, such as the tassel and Cousin It. Wait `till you see what she and Twist created with Uncle Fester's solo, "The Moon and Me." The theatrical creativity done with this number is a prime example of what I so much enjoy about theater design.
The ensemble may be playing dead, decayed corpses from the Addams family tree but their energy and talent is very much alive and exuberant. They execute Sergio Trujillo's choreography with great unison and technique. Not an arm or leg is out of sync. Their vocals are vigorous and blend beautifully with the principals. It is a festive treat to see each of them physically transform themselves (with the assistance of their costumes) to bring out unique characterizations, such as a jazz-baby flapper, a Spanish soldier, an Indian, a fop, a teary bride, and even a caveman.
Martin Vidnovic and Gaelen Gilliland bath their characterizations with just the right overtones of strict, rigid, Republican, white bread parents from Ohio. It could be just me, with all the upcoming election hoopla, but they remind me of a slightly off kilter Mitt and Ann Romney. Gilliland has a fantastic singing voice and uses it at full gusto in the musical number, "Waiting," that earned her a special round of applause from the audience.
Curtis Holdbrook may look familiar to Dallas audiences. He was seen last year in one of my favorite musicals ever done at the Dallas Theater Center, Give It Up, which transferred to Broadway with the new title Lysistrata Jones. Holdbrook was the male lead in the DTC version and was fantastic. In this tour he portrays Wednesday's fiancé Lucas. Holdbrook's buttery pop tenor vocals again succeed here with Lippa's score, and he does have some highly jovial book scenes. But the character begs for Lippa to compose one major solo for Lucas to truly express the shackles that bind him to his family's expectations and also his love for Wednesday. Nonetheless, Holdbrook does not disappoint.
Other entertaining performances include Patrick D. Kennedy as Pugsley, who has a sweet high tenor voice, and Pippa Pearethree as Grandma. It was odd that Grandma did not have a song of her own. That character is so iconic in the Addams cartoons, so it was almost expected she'd have at least one good number.
Zachary James, as Lurch, and Blake Hammond, as Uncle Fester, chew up the scenery with their splendid comedic performances. James actually originated the role of Lurch on Broadway and is here only for the Dallas stop of the national tour. Even when he is blocked upstage, your eyes go straight to him to see his hilarious facial expressions. He has several scenes that had me guffawing out loud (such as the scene when he meets the Beinekes). James is a very tall, lanky man who uses his body to wring out more physical comedy. And what he does in the finale is the comedic cherry on top of his crowd-pleasing performance.
Hammond goes full out and savors every second on stage as Uncle Fester. His comedic timing, pace, and delivery is some of the best work in the entire show. His face becomes a canvas for him to paint and create jocular first-rate facial expressions to give the character more laughs. He does have one of the best musical numbers of the entire night with "The Moon and Me." Hammond is a stand out in this musical.
My first observation of Sara Gettelfinger was when I saw her portray Maria in the critically acclaimed, Tony Award-winning revival of Nine the Musical, which starred Antonio Banderas, Laura Benanti, Jane Krakowski, Mary Stuart Masterson, and the legend herself - Chita Rivera. I would return almost a year later to New York to catch Nine again, only this time it was John Stamos, Mary Stuart Masterson, the late Eartha Kitt, and Gettelfinger taking over for Krakowski as Carla.
Gettelfinger was sensual and sexy as Carla, and all that raw libidinous heat she radiated almost caught on fire the white sheets she slid down from the rafters for her big solo, "A Call from the Vatican". She brings that same sizzling, va-va-voom sensuality to Morticia. She is encased in a skintight black costume that shows curves that make men go weak in their knees. But then there is the low-cut front that can only be described as a miracle from above that not once do her "girls" pop out from the constriction of the bodice.
Gettelfinger shows off her sublime comedic craft with her portrayal of the gothic goddess who is worshipped by her husband. Several scenes she nails with comic zingers that are wickedly funny. Her makeup is painted on with exotic colors (especially her eye shadows) to give Morticia an even lustier aura. Already aware of her singing and dancing brilliance, several of her big numbers are stand outs, including "What If," "Full Disclosure," "Just Around the Corner," and "Tango de Amor." It is a great testament to Gettelfinger's talents that you don't even think of comparing her work here to Carolyn Jones (TV's Morticia) or Angelica Huston (film version of the role).
It seems that Douglas Sills cannot escape having to carry a sword on stage. I saw him give his Tony-nominated performance as The Scarlet Pimpernel on Broadway where he fought with sword in several scenes. For The Addams Family, he again battles with sword in hand, only it's with Lurch, and used to exquisite comedic staging. Sills is a devilishly handsome leading man so he is perfectly cast as the romantic, concupiscent, and erotic Gomez Addams. Sills uses sinfully delicious layers to display that Gomez is "always in the mood," if you catch my drift.
Having seen Sills on Broadway in Pimpernel and in the revival of Little Shop of Horrors, I knew this extremely gifted actor had magnificent comedic chops, well here he not only succeeds again, he steals the show with his side splitting, hysterical performance as the patriarch of the Addams clan. Sills has many key one-liners and book scenes in which he wisely knows where to add that special gift of comedic timing, pace and delivery to achieve an even bigger laugh. He pauses at just the right moment, then "BAM!" he slaughters the audience in laughter. He is the master comedian in this production. To complete his transformation into Gomez, Sills uses a priceless Spanish/Hungarian dialect that adds yet another layer of comedy gold for his characterization. He avoids John Astin (TV's Gomez) and Raul Julia (Film's Gomez) altogether-and goes on his path with the accent. The accent just slayed me in laughter. Sills is swathed in magnetic stage presence that never once diminishes. He has the audience in the palm of his hands and leads them on a rollicking comic ride.
Sills possesses a grand, massive range for a tenor that can belt and sustain notes for endless measures. His voice has crystal clear tones with a vibrato that never wavers off. Thus his solo numbers are musical bon-bons within the score. He has several stand out songs including "Trapped", "Secrets,” "Happy/Sad,” and in particular, "Not Today." For that ballad, Sills displays a soothing, touching lyrical tenor vocal to show great love for his daughter. Sills is the star of The Addams Family due to delivering a show-stopping, scene-stealing, superior performance.
I can see now why Jerry Zaks and the creators anted up the sensuality and eroticism between Gomez and Morticia. I did not see Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth in the Broadway version, but several reviews mentioned the lack of chemistry between the two stars and how Lane only focused on the comedy. Sills and Gettelfinger are physically one hot couple to see on stage. The new songs and book scenes give them more to accentuate the iconic comedy scenes of Gomez lusting and kissing his wife over and over again. Their chemistry is almost animalistic. It's like watching a lion and a lioness purring with lascivious anticipation before they head off into the savannah.
The Addams Family is not high art. It does not elevate the art form of musical theater. It is not ground breaking or a Pulitzer Prize-winning production. But it's not trying to do that whatsoever.
I'm all for seeing magnificent achievements in musical theater that raise the bar. I've seen two phenomenal musicals do just that on Broadway with the original casts. Those were Rent and Spring Awakening. So if you walk into the Music Hall expecting that, then you will not enjoy yourselves at all. This musical simply wants to entertain and make audiences laugh, and this musical does just that with resounding success. Go in with an open mind to just have fun. If you go without that "it must be high art" chip on your shoulder, then you will enjoy this musical with a belly full of laughs.
I sincerely thought I was going to see a bland, boring musical but instead I left with a big smile on my face because the musical was just so much fun and covered in laughter.
I may not have the snooty, cold, holier than thou attitude of the Gotham critics, but for me The Addams Family is an impressive production that washes away my preconceived notions of what I thought it would be.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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