'The Addams Family' mines macabre musical comedy

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[April 20, 2010]  NEW YORK (AP) -- If you want to know why musical comedy is such a difficult art form to master, a prime example is now on display at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre where "The Addams Family" has fitfully burst into story and song.

IHardwaren attempting to give Charles Addams' macabre characters a life beyond the brilliant single-panel cartoons that appeared for years in The New Yorker, the creators of this schizophrenic musical have made them more audience friendly. But in a perverse way, they're not as much fun.

Gomez. Morticia. Uncle Fester. Grandma. Wednesday. Pugsley. Lurch. Weird, of course. But, in a way, just like us ordinary folks, with emotions, insecurities, hopes and fears. That seems to be the thrust of the joke-peppered book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice.

The two have concocted a predictable tale of culture clashes between the oddball Addams crew and the square, straight-laced Ohio family whose son wants to marry almost grown-up Wednesday. It's this juxtaposition of the two families that occupies and undermines much of the musical, particularly in the second act when the anemic plot practically evaporates.

The score by Andrew Lippa, best known as the composer of the off-Broadway "Wild Party," is eclectic, striving to giving each character his or her unique sound. Latin for Gomez, for example. A pop motif for Wednesday. And more traditional Broadway razzmatazz for an almost vaudevillian Uncle Fester.

Lippa's efforts make for a few jaunty tunes and a sizable collection of nimble lyrics -- the rhythmic opening number that introduces the Addams clan is especially catchy. Unfortunately, they compete with more prosaic songs that fill time rather than advance the minimal story or flesh out the characters in any meaningful way.

Which means a heavy burden is placed on the show's stars to entertain. For the most part, they do, most emphatically Nathan Lane as Gomez, the patriarch of the household.

Lane, complete with a deliciously phony Spanish accent, is the hardest working actor on Broadway. Whatever they are paying him -- and I hope it is a lot -- he's worth the price. The actor possesses a theatrical gusto that makes the musical move whenever he is on stage. There's a confidence to his singing, dancing and clowning. He seems to have an innate GPS for finding a laugh.

As Morticia, a sexy Bebe Neuwirth looks gorgeous, even though as Gomez's wife she often has to act as second banana to his flashy high jinks. The creators have tried hard to give her a moment -- a big dance number at the top of Act 2 -- but the song and choreography (courtesy of Sergio Trujillo) feel superfluous.

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The supporting players also get their chance in the spotlight. The appealing Kevin Chamberlin as the sweet-tempered Uncle Fester sings a love song to the moon, although one wishes the song were better to fully realize the scene's laugh potential.

Jackie Hoffman displays a fine comic lewdness as Grandma, and there are effective cameos by Zachary James as an appropriately cadaverous Lurch and Adam Riegler as a malevolent little Pugsley.

As the young lovers, Krysta Rodriguez and Wesley Taylor are surprisingly bland, but then they are given some of the musical's more simpering material. The performers portraying Wednesday's would-be in-laws -- Terrence Mann and Carolee Carmello -- don't stand a chance, either, against the show's more exotic personalities. Still, Carmello, as the flighty potential mother-in-law, has a few moments of delightful giddiness delivering her lines in rhyming, greeting-card cheerfulness.

Ghostly, long-dead Addams ancestors make up the underused chorus, but there is some inventive puppet contributions from Basil Twist including an amorous squid.

It's not easy to determine who exactly directed what in "The Addams Family." The show's out-of-town troubles resulted in Jerry Zaks being brought aboard as "creative consultant," even though both Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch are still credited with the show's choppy direction and elaborate design.

That design includes an elegant, appropriately spooky Victorian mansion, plunked down in New York's Central Park. The setting is stylish and consistently watchable, unlike the patchwork musical it houses. Charles Addams' inspired creations have survived a 1960s television series -- use of the TV show's memorable finger-snapping theme gets a big laugh here -- as well as two movies. And they will survive Broadway as well.

[Associated Press; By MICHAEL KUCHWARA]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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