You couldn’t help giving Theater League’s “The Addams Family” two snaps up – literally – in the opening seconds of the overture, particularly if you (as so many opening nighters did) recognized the familiar old TV theme.
Just as soon as Thing (actually, the white gloved hand of music director Nolan Bonvouloir) appeared above the orchestra pit, audience members seemed to automatically put finger to thumb to snap right along.
The welcoming snaps came easily enough, but the show would have to earn its standing ovation, which, as it turned out, it did in easy-breezy fashion two-and-a-half giddy, gaudy, gloriously over-the-top hours later. The show is a masterpiece of delicious excess, from escalating production numbers (by Sergio Trujillo) that seem to mock the very genre to hammy characters who don’t just chew the scenery, they devour it.
Like Monty Python’s “Spamalot” or “Shrek: The Musical,” “The Addams Family” is part of a high-concept franchise that attracts a longtime fan base with all its individual expectations and eccentricities. If you offend those sensibilities, you’re dead. But if you stroke them, you’re golden. And this cast and crew got it right.
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Most audiences know “The Addams Family” from the 1960s sitcom with Carolyn Jones and John Astin or the 1991 movie with Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia, but the delightfully macabre characters go back to 1938 from cartoons created by Charles Addams for The New Yorker. This version – music by Andrew Lippa (“The Wild Party”) and book by Marshall Brickman (“Manhattan”) and Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys’) – builds upon those past incarnations by adding a little “Fosse,” a little “A Chorus Line” and a lot of heart in the second act.
The family is headed by icily glamorous matriarch Morticia and her hot-blooded, tango-loving Latin hubby, Gomez. In a decaying Gothic mansion in the middle of New York’s Central Park, they are raising perpetually gloomy daughter, Wednesday, and masochistic, pain-loving son, Pugsley, but also providing shelter for creepy Uncle Fester, crabby Grandma and shaggy Cousin Itt with the help of their tall, dark and fearsome butler, Lurch.
In this tale, daughter Wednesday has blossomed into a young woman of 18 (“She’ll be Thursday before you know it,” her dad laments) who has fallen for a “normal” boy named Lucas. His straight-laced folks, Mal and Alice, are from Ohio. But will their very different parents break up this “Romeo and Ghouliet” romance? They all get together over a fateful dinner to meet and find out.
Jesse Sharp as Gomez is the hardest-working guy on stage as he tries to placate his wife and daughter, who are at odds over the romance. Sharp is almost like poor Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and Sharp is totally animated and hilarious as he tries to put out domestic fires before they get comically out of hand.
Sharp also has a powerhouse singing voice, whether cavorting through “When You’re an Addams” in a graveyard to raise his ancestors or wooing his wife with “Let’s Live Before We Die” or poignantly bemoaning his daughter’s growing up in “Happy/Sad.”
Keleen Snowgren is the perfect ice queen as Morticia in her floor-length black mermaid gown “cut down to Venezuela” and her long straight hair. But Snowgren’s sensual voice gives her character the needed warmth as a loving wife and mom. She also imbues her with a sly sense of gallows humor in the comic “Death is Just Around the Corner” – coroner, get it?
Jennifer Fogarty, carefully preserving her deadpan demeanor, has an intense, full-on rock star voice quality for her “One Normal Night” plea to her parents and her “Crazier Than You” challenge to her boyfriend. And Bryan Welnicki as the equally lovestruck Lucas matches Fogarty note for note and blends beautifully in their duets.
Connor Barth has a surprisingly mature, solid sound as the adolescent Pugsley while Amanda Bruton plays Grandma as an aging flower child who “medicates” her problems away. Mark Poppleton and Blair Anderson make memorable use of their roles as Lucas’ conservative parents. They are the ostensible villains of this piece, but the two hold their own to stay sympathetic. And Anderson can really belt out a furious wronged-wife lament when finally unleashed.
But Shaun Rice as creepy Uncle Fester and Dan Olson as the silently monstrous Lurch are the subtle scene stealers of the show. Olson has not a single line of dialogue, but he has three – count ’em – three show-stopping moments which must be seen to be believed. He sings, he dances, he moves fast (sort of).
And Rice, who plays a “bald, fat man of indeterminate sexuality,” is the sweet, secret romantic who is all for Wednesday and Lucas’ pairing because he knows what love it. Fester is enamored of the moon, and he has the gentle, haunting ballad (“The Moon and Me”) to prove it. In a surprising and spectacular bit of stage magic, he floats in a mid-air ballet to play with his glowing mistress of the night.
The set design is lush and colorful with a giant red-and-gold Victorian curtain that opens various windows to reveal each scene. It’s all painted backdrops, of course, but the layering plus star lights and a glowing New York skyline make it absolutely breathtaking.