In its first Chicago staging since its Broadway tryout, the musical still sucks the lifeblood out of its creepy, kooky characters.
There’s no shame in taking the kids to the latest reboot. They’re bound to love the excess of color and special effects. A fondly remembered franchise gives the adults something to laugh at. No matter how terrible Michael Bay’s Transformers series is, it's still giant robots shooting lasers and punching one another, and that tickles the hindbrain nicely. So, The Addams Family at the Mercury Theater (much revised since its pre-Broadway run at the Oriental Theatre in 2009) is still a host of spooky characters, sly innuendo, dancing skeletons and macabre one-liners.
But as an actual rendering of cartoonist Charles Addams's creations, the musical still falls on the generic side. The plot is a standard “guess who’s coming to dinner” setup—a teenage Wednesday Addams (Dara Cameron) has fallen in love, and her wholesome boyfriend and his family are coming to visit. This rote sitcom plot drags the strange Addams into normal territory, a place they should never dwell. Director L. Walter Stearns pauses the action constantly so that every joke gets its “a-ha” moment, and then rushes through the plot to reach the dancing, singing, and music.
Far less attention needs to be spent on choreography and fancy costumes, and more on the actors, where I couldn’t see the hand of the director at all. The cast dares to stand on the shoulders of giants, from John Astin and Carolyn Adams of the 1960s sitcom to the ensemble cast of the ‘91 movie, delivering flawless performances that revived the characters in pop culture. Anjelica Huston was a regal goddess of death as Morticia; Raul Julia’s Gomez the perfect fatalistic husband. And a young Christina Ricci slayed as Wednesday with her absolute deadpan deliveries.
As written by the Jersey Boys team of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, the Addams family falls far short of those iconic templates. Here, Morticia (Rebecca Prescott) is reduced to a nagging mother, and Cameron's Wednesday is far too animated. Uncle Fester (Harter Clingman) gets a lot of stage time clowning around to the delight of young audience members, but adds nothing to the plot and has lost his rough edges.
For an adult, the humor of the strange family is lost in these mostly normal performances. It’s made worse by a plot that depends on the Addamses stooping to please others. This is the antithesis of their charm; the family is so delightful precisely because they are indomitably themselves. They revel in their old traditions and morbid obsessions, and live in a world more delightfully twisted than our own. It’s no fun to watch the monsters compromise themselves with a story as conventional as they come.
Andrew Lippa's score suffers from the same lack of flavor. No single note reflects the nature of the Addams family; they just happen to be singing. The whole production, then, is all-too-perfect as a Hollywood-style reboot—maybe a fun diversion, but utterly missing the point of the franchise.
Mercury Theater Chicago. Music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Directed by L. Walter Stearns. With Karl Hamilton, Rebecca Prescott, Harter Clingman, Dara Cameron, Henry McGinnis, Brennan Dougherty, Jeff Diebold, Amanda Hartley, Cory Goodrich, Jason Grimm. Running time: 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.