As the house lights flicker eerily against yards of blood-red draperies that continually shift and change throughout the show, a Fugue-like overture sets an appropriate mood for this highly anticipated new musical drawn from the dark cartoons of The New Yorker cartoonist, Charles Addams. "The Addams Family" features Broadway heavy-hitters Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Kevin Chamberlin, Carolee Carmello, Terrence Mann and Jackie Hoffman. Andrew Lippa ("The Wild Party," the revival of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown") composed the pleasant score with a book by "Jersey Boys" writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Amid high expectations, however, the lengthy production is exactly what it claims to be: a pre-Broadway tryout with a lot to offer and room for improvement.
The plot revolves around Gomez and Morticia's rebellious daughter Wednesday (brilliantly played by "In the Heights" actress Krysta Rodriguez) and her desire, now that she has become a young woman, to marry an outsider named Lucas (earnestly performed by Wesley Taylor). In the striking opening number, "Clandango," the members of the Addams clan, backed by an ensemble of ghostly ancestors, emerge from the shadows of the family graveyard and ceremoniously snip off Wednesday's braids.
The cast is perfection, led by Lane and Neuwirth as Gomez and Morticia Addams. No other actors could be more ideally suited to bringing these iconic roles to life. Physically and vocally they embody the ghoulish Addams guardians. The same praise goes to Kevin Chamberlin's impish Uncle Fester, more-or-less the show's emcee, and Jackie Hoffman's feisty, wisecracking Grandma. Both are comic geniuses and accomplished musical artists; Chamberlin brings down the house with his aerial ballet, "The Moon and I." Unfortunately for us Ms. Hoffman's considerable talents are underutilized in this production, but hopefully that will improve during script rewrites. This is, after all, a work in progress until April 2010.
The show also features the brilliant Carolee Carmello and Terrence Mann as Wednesday's prospective in-laws. These two peerless Broadway musical veterans shake up the stage as Carmello soars in her plaintive "Waiting," and Mann transforms from prude to lover with "In the Arms (Of a Squid)."
But as brilliant as these performances are this show is called "The Addams Family" for a reason. Yes, audiences expect extraordinary costumes, sets and special effects (which are abundant), but they also come to savor and laugh at the Addams' macabre way of life. Instead the musical shifts into a play about coping with growing older that just undermines and waters down the bizarrely loving and exotic relationship audiences want to see.
While this musical satisfies much of the audience's expectations with Pugsley, Lurch (the droll Zachary James, another underutilized talent in this production), Thing, Cousin Itt, monsters under the bed, creatures in the closet and an Escher inspired drafty mansion full of staircases that shift and split into nowhere, the story needs to be shifted and split back to its heart: The Addams Family.