Arts & Culture

November 15, 2013

Family values gone weird at center of Theater League musical ‘Addams Family’

Like any other American homemaker, Morticia Addams “just wants to be the best wife, mother and hostess she can,” said Keleen Snowgren, who plays her in the new musical “The Addams Family.”

Like any other American homemaker, Morticia Addams “just wants to be the best wife, mother and hostess she can,” said Keleen Snowgren, who plays her in the new musical “The Addams Family.”

“She’s very dark, mysterious and sultry. But she is also a mom. She cares deeply for her family, but what she aspires to is not quite normal for most people. She wants the worst for her family – but always in the most loving way,” Snowgren said with a laugh.

The show opens Tuesday for a three-performance run in Century II as the second show of the season for Theater League.

Morticia, married to exuberant, tango-loving hubby Gomez, is the icily glamorous matriarch of the macabre family created in 1938 by cartoonist Charles Addams. The cartoon ran for half a century in the New Yorker magazine. They are the parents of perpetually gloomy daughter Wednesday and masochistic, pain-loving son Pugsley, but they also provide shelter for eccentric relatives like loony Uncle Fester, cranky Grandma and creepy Cousin Itt with the help of their tall, dark and fearsome butler, Lurch.

Most people know them from the 1964-66 sitcom with Carolyn Jones and John Astin or from the 1991 movie starring Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia. Unlike their upstart rival “The Munsters,” the Addamses weren’t vampires, werewolves or other supernatural folk. They were just endearingly weird.

“Are you unhappy, darling?” Gomez asks as he snuggles with Morticia in front of a cold, dead fireplace in perhaps the quintessential New Yorker cartoon, which has become a key moment in the play. “Oh, yes, yes! Completely,” Morticia responds lovingly.

The family finally hit Broadway in 2010, headed by Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane, thanks to composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa (“The Wild Party,” “Big Fish”) and writers Marshall Brickman (co-writer with Woody Allen of “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall”) and Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”). The show was snubbed by critics but cheered by audiences, who made it a financial hit and set attendance records.

“It’s a huge responsibility to do these roles because so many people already love the family and already have an idea of what they should be like,” said Snowgren, a Minnesota native who is a “self-proclaimed Yankee Texan” after growing up in Houston.

“What I love about Morticia is how womanly she is. When you step into that gown with 4-inch-heel boots underneath and put on that long wig, you can’t help feeling sensual,” said Snowgren, who has toured with shows like “Spamalot” and “Hairspray.”

“For someone who considers herself a jeans-and-leather-jacket sort of gal, it’s a daily chance for me to be glamorous.”

Is Morticia somebody that Snowgren would be friends with?

“I’d be drawn to her because she’s so mysterious and intriguing, but I’m afraid she wouldn’t be friends with me because I’m too square,” Snowgren said with a laugh.

Catering to Morticia’s every dark whim as Gomez, her mustachioed Latin husband, is Jesse Sharp, a native Californian who has done everything from Shakespeare in unconventional settings to flexing his comic muscles with The Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade. He even toured Asia with “Grease.”

“Gomez is the eternal optimist. He’s gregarious and outgoing. He loves people, he loves jokes, he loves everything,” said Sharp, who admits to being a “bright-side guy” himself but probably is only about 50 percent as positive as Gomez.

“He’s the most normal one of the family. But he’s still out of his mind,” Sharp said. “I’m drawing inspiration from all the over-the-top Latin types like Antonio Banderas as ‘Shrek’s’ Puss in Boots and Mandy Patinkin’s Montoya in ‘The Princess Bride.’ That makes Gomez a blast to play.”

Sharp said the biggest difference between the new stage romp and the previous incarnations is that daughter Wednesday has blossomed into a young woman of 18 who has begun to notice boys, in particular a “normal” guy named Luke. Call it “Romeo and Ghouliet.”

“It changes the family dynamic because she’s no longer a child,” Sharp said. “But some things don’t change. We all feel the responsibility to give audiences the Addams Family they have come to know and love – but with more singing and dancing.”

Such as in the opening number, “When You’re an Addams,” where all members of the clan “living, dead or undecided” come together to celebrate: “When you’re an Addams ... you have to see the world in shades of gray / you have to put some poison in your day.”

Or like Gomez’s romantic paean to his wife: “Morticia, Morticia, the name alone is gold / it speaks of death and labored breath / not fears of growing old / the chill she brings to every room / the lethal stench of her perfume / the screams she saves for only you / the misery she puts you through / Morticia.”

Wednesday’s parents fret that she has begun to smile occasionally and even – horrors – to sing. When she ditches her all-black wardrobe and dons bright colors, the parents agonize over where they’ve gone wrong. And when she invites her boyfriend’s parents, the straight-laced Mal and Alice, over for dinner so everyone can meet, she demands that her family be on their best behavior (shades of “La Cage aux Folles”).

“All I want is ‘One Normal Night,’ ” Wednesday laments in a song of the same name. Trouble is, Luke is telling his judgmental parents the very same thing.

Earlier this year, “The Addams Family” was on tour for two months in Japan, and both Snowgren and Sharp say the audience reaction was completely different than they were expecting.

“There are places where we’ve learned to hold for laughs, but in Asia, puns just don’t go over,” Snowgren said. “I have a song about ‘Death waiting just around the coroner’ – corner, get it? When I sang it there, it was just crickets (in the audience). We learned to move right along.”

What Asians found funniest, the two actors say, were comic confrontations between mother and daughter, husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend – things seemingly innocuous to Americans but over-the-top for their culture.

“And when Morticia delivers a line that Gomez must cancel the dinner with the boy’s parents, they really laughed because, in Japan, only women make social arrangements,” Snowgren said.

Despite cultural differences, the reception to the show was strong, Snowgren said.

“We were a cult hit in Asia. People would come to see the show four and five times. They would be waiting at the stage door every night, and they brought us gifts. We even had our own paparazzi following us around,” Snowgren said. “They made us feel like superstars.”

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