Wednesday, December 30, 2009

They're Creepy and They're Kooky

As some of my longtime readers probably remember, my sis and I were the recipients of a remarkable gift about a month or so ago -- two free tickets to see the Chicago preview run of the Broadway-bound The Addams Family. It was the cause of tremendous excitement on our part -- the chance to see any professional theatre is always exciting for me, but when you add two of my all-time favorite stars (Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth) to one of my favorite tv shows when I was a kid, excitement doesn't even scratch the surface.

As the show grew closer, I started to worry. What if the show sucked? My sis assured me that we would enjoy the show regardless, that Nathan and Bebe would make it all worthwhile and that there was sure to be something redeeming involved. And still I worried.

We took our seats at the gorgeous Oriental Theatre -- seriously, it is breathtaking. We'd been there before (it was the home of Wicked for several years), but we'd never been down on the main floor. We'd seen "stars" onstage before, but this time, we were actually going to be able to SEE them and not have to squint!

As the overture started, I could feel the goosebumps rising and the tears of joy and excitement growing near. There is just nothing like the rush of theatre, and it's even more of a rush when you know that what lies ahead is going to be a spectacle if not spectacular. When I'm sitting in the audience of a musical during the overture, I feel like a little kid again, ready to engage in the wonder of the stage. My favorite moment of a show is that moment when the overture is wrapping up and the curtain rises to reveal the world that you will be engaged in for the next couple hours. When the curtain rose Monday night revealing the Addams family graveyard -- and the Addams family themselves -- I gasped aloud (yeah, I am such a nerd!). There was this lovely, gloomy set (this enormous tree that the theatre teacher in me immediately wanted to jump on stage to investigate to see how it was made, this giant moon) and there was the cast. I admit, I wept with the sheer joy of just seeing Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth (who honestly looked just like they look onscreen -- he seemed a tiny bit taller than I imagined, she seemed even skinnier than I imagined, but that was about it).

For the first quarter of the first act, though, I'll admit I was concerned about the show. The opening number was kind of blah and anti-climactic to me, and I felt like there was a lack of any clear exposition. The show kind of assumes we know the characters intimately, and it would have been nice to have just a little more establishment of the characters, even if it's just to confirm what we already pretty much know or remember. The show also utilized some things initially that frequently drive me crazy in theatre. After the opening number, Uncle Fester stepped forward and began narrating. I generally HATE shows with narrators because it often feels like a way to cheat your way out of meaningful exposition and character development. Don't TELL me what's going on; SHOW me what's going on. The first couple scenes were quick little scenes, very vignette-like -- another peeve of mine in theatre. I like shows with an overarching story, and it initially seemed like this was going to be more kooky looks at little Addams episodes and that concerned me. Add to that the fact that the presence of Morticia and Gomez seemed a bit diminished at the beginning, and I was not a happy camper.

And then it all changed. About a quarter of the way into the act, Morticia and Gomez had a lovely little song together ("Passionate and True"), and Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth demonstrated a fun, easy chemistry together. They seemed comfortable together, and I really enjoyed that. Around this point, too, the plot began to emerge a little more clearly -- the now 18-year-old Wednesday Addams (a charming Krysta Rodriguez) has fallen in love with a normal young man named Lucas Beinecke (Wesley Taylor). The Beinecke parents, Mal (Terrence Mann) and Alice (Carolee Carmello), are in town from Ohio (of course) and are coming to dinner at the Addams home in spite of Wednesday's objections/concerns. We have a classic culture clash between the normal world of the Beineckes and the kooky world of the Addamses. Wednesday begs her parents to give her one night of normalcy so as not to scare the Beineckes off and ruin her chances with Lucas. Add to the conflict the fact that Morticia is not entirely sure she's ready to be old enough to have a daughter in love, the Gomez is not entirely sure he's ready for his daughter to date, and that Pugsley is not happy that his sister is no longer torturing him (literally) because of her newfound focus on Lucas and you have a plot that works pretty well most of the time. The number that introduces the Beinecke family ("One Normal Night") really kick starts the show -- and finally gives us the money shot of the Addams Family (complete with Morticia's wicker chair) as well as a glorious teaser of the theme song we all remember. You could almost feel the audience relaxing into the show at that point as we all jumped on board the train. The rest of the first act really fired along nicely as we moved towards the set closing "Full Disclosure" (one of my favorite numbers in the show) which found the Addams clan inviting the Beineckes to play their favorite game involving the revelation of deep secrets and which left both families in tatters as the curtain closed.

The second act started off with a nice showstopping number for Bebe Neuwirth ("Second Banana") as Morticia mourned the loss of her youth and was quickly followed by a lovely number for Nathan Lane ("Happy/Sad") as Gomez came to terms with his daughter being in love and letting his little girl go. The act got a bit draggy, though, with ten different numbers stuffed in, several of which often felt like they were taking us away from the big central conflict. Particularly problematic was the cute, visually fun number "The Moon and Me" where Fester woos his great love, the moon. (Literally, the dude is in love with the moon.) It is a funny little number, but it also kind of stops the show dead in its tracks in terms of moving the plot along, keeping us from getting to our resolution.

I felt, too, like the show often struggled under the weight of the three conflicts contained within the overarching conflict of the show -- a rift in the marriage of Gomez and Morticia, a rift in the marriage of Mal and Alice, and a rift in the romance of Wednesday and Lucas. Wednesday and Lucas get their resolution relatively early in act II with the fun song "Crazier Than You" and then the duo pretty much go MIA until the finale. Morticia and Gomez find their resolution in a breathtaking scene which begins with a swordfight and ends in a delicious tango between the two. The number, too, also serves to address another early complaint I had, which was the fact that the required Morticia costume really limited Bebe Neuwirth's dancing early in the show because her legs were constrained in the tight dress. With a flick of a sword, Gomez "frees" her legs and suddenly there was the Bebe Neuwirth I've long idolized with the legs and the kicks and the dancing. Hooray!! "The Swordfight/Tango" was one of the highlights of the show -- gloriously choregraphed and demonstrating the beautiful chemistry between Lane and Neuwirth. It is just so amazing to watch two pros do their stuff, and even more inspiring is seeing how easily they pull this off when they are, honestly, not young people. (Lane is 53 and Neuwirth is 51, but they work like kids in their 20's up there!)

The problem is that "The Swordfight/Tango" wraps up Gomez and Morticia's conflict (the fear that the passion was going out of their marriage fueled by Morticia's fear of growing older), but we were still left with Mal and Alice. These two "strangers" get their resolution after Gomez and Morticia -- and that just felt wrong. For the final 20 minutes or so of the show, Gomez and Morticia basically become onlookers as others find their happy ending. During the show's finale ("Move Toward the Darkness"), it is Wednesday and Lucas who occupy center stage with Gomez and Morticia off to the side with the rest of the family. During that number, Wednesday, Lucas, Mal, and Alice all get "big" moments but there is none for Gomez and Morticia. The show is called The Addams Family and for most people, that really means Gomez and Morticia and I kind of felt cheated watching these strangers get the glory moments while the characters I came to see are off to the side.

Overall, I did enjoy the show. It is incredibly funny, beautifully designed, well acted and sung by a cast deep with Tony wins and nominations. Before heading to Broadway, though, it does need some work -- trimming some songs, tightening the script, and finding that focus on the Family. I read yesterday in the NY Times that Jerry Zaks had been brought on board to "doctor" the show a bit, which makes me think that the show I saw Monday night is going to be vastly different by time it gets to New York in the spring. For the sake of the show, I hope that it gets the tweaking it needs and is able to move to New York as successfully as Spamalot or The Producers (other Chicago preview shows that made it big). The potential is there; the cast is certainly game and capable. What I saw was a good show, but I think that it could be a great show.

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