Contrary to what you may have read, The Addams Family, the new musical at the Lunt-Fontanne, is not the worst thing to come to Broadway this season. It’s not even the worst thing to come to Broadway last week. (More, later, on what was.)
Addams opened last Thursday night after a reportedly troubled run in Chicago and a significant creative overhaul—the veteran comic director Jerry Zaks was brought in and listed as creative consultant, effectively replacing the original direction-and-design combo of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch. The result is a disappointment, sure—but mostly because this expensively produced, ideally cast show could have been so spectacular.
It’s not great, but it’s very good—an entirely entertaining and enjoyable two and a half hours in the theater. And as a clearly commercial-minded venture, designed to bring in tourist audiences and deliver a long run, it ably, if not perfectly, delivers the Big Broadway Show experience.
That is thanks to top-notch production values—the sets and staging are gorgeous and often witty—and an even better cast. Nathan Lane is Gomez Addams, the unusual family’s patriarch, and he’s the best I’ve seen him in years, blustery but tender, with his usually impeccable comic delivery. Sure, he’s doing Bialystock, but that’s a much better fit here than as, say, Ben Butley. Bebe Neuwirth is both gorgeous and sublimely deadpan as his wife; she’s a model Morticia, and she’d be better if only she’d been given more dancing to do.
The production, we’ve been told, is based not on the 1960s TV show but rather on the original Charles Addams cartoons, which appeared in The New Yorker. But The Addams Family’s overture nevertheless begins (wisely) with the da-da-da-da-snap-snap TV theme, and the show proceeds (less wisely) to deliver a sitcomish plot: Daughter Wednesday has fallen in love with a “normal” boy—Lucas Beineke, from Ohio—and invited his parents for dinner at the spectacularly gothic family mansion, hidden inside Central Park. At the dinner, she wants her family to act normal, too. (La Cage, 10 days early!) They try, and fail, but everyone ends up happy and in love.
The story would be compelling if something more was at stake than relations with the machetunim. And it’s a shame that the book, by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who won a Tony for their first Broadway effort, Jersey Boys, draws such a traditionally cheery message—be yourself, and embrace love on your own terms—from such famously off-kilter source material. But it’s also defensible: Ultimately, even in the original Addams panels, the family is happy, in their skewed way, and if the mass audiences that lead to long runs were looking for weirdo depressives, more Sondheim shows would have made money.
What this script does have is a collection of excellent—if often audience-flattering—one-liners, presumably the work of Mr. Brickman, the former Woody Allen co-writer.
Addams also has forgettable music and lyrics, by Andrew Lippa, best known for The Wild Party. (One imagines, wistfully, what Hairspray’s Shaiman and Whitman would have done with this upbeat, happy interpretation of Addams, or Avenue Q’s Lopez and Marx with a more skewed, goofy take.) And Sergio Trujillo, also a Tony winner for Jersey Boys, delivers pleasant but unmemorable choreography.
But the rest of the cast is as good as the leads, and they’re so much fun to watch—and look so good—that you leave happy, despite the show’s weaknesses.
Wednesday, though at the center of the show, is the least-developed character, but Krysta Rodriguez sings well while pulling off a teenager’s frustrated petulance. Adam Riegler, as her younger brother, Pugsley, is genuinely discomfiting, an awkward kid with a barely hidden streak of gleeful sadism. The always-memorable Jackie Hoffman’s Grandma is a dotty old pill-pusher, with a craggy, mole-marked face and fond memories of Woodstock. And Kevin Chamberlin’s weird Uncle Fester steals his scenes: Secretly in love with the moon, he’s evil, scheming, sensitive, sad and sweet. (The Beinekes are fine but much less compelling.)
Fester’s second-act love song to the moon—he strums his ukulele and floats toward the object of his affection—is the loveliest moment in the show.
AND THE WORST thing I saw last week? Million Dollar Quartet, the jukebox musical set in Memphis’ Sun Records recording studio on the famous 1956 afternoon when Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley all stopped by for a jam session.
The day really happened, and Sam Phillips, the Sun founder, whose eye for talent and flair for publicity helped create rock ’n’ roll, made sure a photo of it got in the local paper. In a jukebox-musical era, you can see how that image—and the catalog that goes with it—seems like a good idea for a play-cum-concert.
But at the Nederlander, where Million Dollar Quartet opened Sunday night, it all looks less inspired.
The problem is that the photo is a moment, not a story. And it’s a real moment, not fiction. So Floyd Mutrux, who conceived, co-wrote and directed the show, and Colin Escott, who wrote it with him, can’t quite ape Jersey Boys (which tracks the real and interesting tale of a band’s creation, development, mob ties and internal rivalries), and it can’t quite ape Rock of Ages, which simply invents a plot to showcase songs. This musical tries to be both, but it works as neither.
This despite the best efforts of the four men playing the quartet, who all sing, dance, play instruments and are required to impersonate some remarkably well-known figures. (Poor Eddie Clendening is obliged to spend the evening with his lip awkwardly curled in an Elvis sneer.) Together with a bassist and a drummer, they work their way through 23 songs, some classics but a surprising number not. The performances are excellent, but they never take off—each time they’re about to, the music stops and Phillips, played by the underused Hunter Foster, delivers some historical exposition.
The only dramatic tension ginned up is that Johnny Cash plans to leave Sun and sign with Columbia, but he can’t bring himself to tell Phillips. Finally, he does, and Phillips is angry. Briefly. Then they have a drink, all is forgiven and it’s time for the finale. The set—the Sun studio, done up in red leather and silver crown moldings, like a hip steakhouse—disappears, and the band rocks through a final five tracks. This, at last, is what you’re here for, and it only took about 90 minutes to arrive.