A band of ghoulish outsiders

Broadway Rose raises The Addams Family from the dead in a rousing romp of a musical comedy

America has always been a fertile ground for outsiders. The consequences of not fitting might be dangerous or deadly, but our art world has long opened its arms to carry malcontents like cream at the top. Eventually what was once strange, awkward, or foreign becomes cherished. “An institution” is a phrase that’s sometimes thrown about. We also have a little place in  our hearts for the dark side, the shadowy world where a headless horseman terrorizes young New England, or a beating heart raises guilt through the floorboards.

And who, or what, is more of an outsider/insider American clan than The Addams Family, who are kicking up their musical-comedy heels in a rousing new production at Broadway Rose?

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Lisamarie Harrison as Morticia, with ensemble in Broadway Rose’s “The Addams Family.” Photo: Sam Ortega

It’s been a long and ghoulish and very American road for the Addamses from the pen of cartoonist Charles Addams to the musical-theater stage. When Addams first drew his family from an inkwell, America was in the throes of the Great Depression. A freelancer, he made his reputation with the New Yorker. Encouraged as a child by his father to keep at the pen, Addams was inspired by the Victorian homes of his New Jersey neighborhood, and drew skulls and crossbones for his high school newspaper. In one of his first jobs out of college, he doctored crime-scene photos for a publication. His professional career was made with the creation of his crazy, kooky family, cementing his paychecks and reputation for half a century.

The single-panel snapshots of the macabre nuclear family, later called The Addams Family, had a Dada character to them. In each one an ordinary task or errand is carried out with an American Gothic twist. In one, Morticia is decorating a bare Christmas tree with ghoulish ornaments and octopus tentacles. Cue Tim Burton’s career and see the influence.

Addams named his final home “The Swamp.” One of his obituaries mentions collections of Medieval armor, crossbows, maces, broadswords and an antique embalming table in his living room. His wives were long, languid, and powder-complexioned, with shocks of black hair. Charles was said to be gentle, refined, a lady’s man. Rumors circulated that he accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy, Greta Garbo, and Joan Fontaine. His slicked-backed Brylcreem hair and rounded features are oddly similar to the father figure’s in his cartoon. He was an amiable and easygoing guy, according to friends and associates. His final resting place is the pet cemetery, which was perhaps a selling point for him, located on “The Swamp’s” property.

The heart-of-gold, oblivious, and sometimes magical creatures he featured in his one-panel jokes were adapted for a 1964 television show. It was here that the gruesome crew first had names and Vic Mizzy’s familiar theme song first aired. Mizzy’s harpsichord and finger-snapping tune inspired a bunch of Hollywood execs in the early ’90s to do a big-screen version, starring Raul Julia as arguably the best Gomez Addams.

Isaac Lamb as Uncle Fester, with the ensemble, serenading the moon. Photo: Sam Ortega

The television show fleshed out the characters for a sitcom and created the camp sort of gags and dispositions we expect from an Addams to date. Nat Perrin, the producer, was a friend to Groucho Marx and wrote many of the Marx Brothers’ films. Take another look at Gomez Addams on the TV set and you’ll see the wisecracking, cigar-smoking, moustachioed father figure in a new light. The youngest Addams, Wednesday Friday, was named appropriately because she’s “full of woe.” Beyond a few points, Charles Addams had little to to do with the two-season televised family. The show presented a lot of firsts and was a pop segue that articulated the changing dynamics of domestic life in the mid-sixties from perfect, promising and repressed to messy, real and individuated. Gomez and Morticia were the first to have a sex life on television, and in one episode the family is the first to have a computer, a UNIVAC.

The show fizzled because of predictable plots: Average Americans somehow enter the Addams’ dark nest, and as the two opposites resolve their differences in lifestyle, we find out everyone puts their pants on the same way, one leg at a time. But while the stories were predictable, the gags made up for them in charm. Much as with their predecessor The Flintstones, ingenious ways to subvert the familiar got the laughs. Morticia’s gardening (as also seen in the comic) was beheading roses, and Wednesday and Pugsley’s doll play (also from the comic) was with equally headless creatures given names like Marie Antoinette. Pop-culture fans remember that the Addams family lived for a time next to the Flintstones in later seasons of the cartoon show.

It’s easy to see how such a camp cult classic of lovable creeps could be reborn again and again through different mediums. When Broadway veterans Andrew Lippa, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice drew the shady bunch to their natural or unnatural conclusion – a musical comedy – the bar was set high. Nathan Lane was the first Gomez and Bebe Neuwirth was Morticia. Yet as the morning papers fell, the reviews put a damper on the show, with one reviewer calling it “lifeless.” The show opened on Broadway in 2010 and closed the following year after a modest run of 35 previews and 722 performances. Subsequent productions were criticized as “museum pieces” of pop culture, out of touch with the times, before a tightened and revised 2015 version in Chicago drew rave reviews.

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Molly Duddelston and Karsten George, fooling around with the family playthings. Photo: Sam Ortega

Broadway Rose’s production, which is directed by the talented Peggy Taphorn, takes on the issues many of the early critics had. While the songs aren’t as catchy as the television jingle, the Cuban motifs are toe-tapping and Broadway Rose’s orchestra gives the songs a second chance with their performance. I’m a stickler for transitions in musicals from dialogue to number, and one of the best technical aspects to this production is how seamless the theater makes these moments. There’s something very real and natural to the characters breaking out in song.

Joe Theissen’s Gomez isn’t the Renaissance man of obscure tricks, but he’s a well-tailored gentleman who throws around his cash like it’s going out of style. He still craves Morticia with the perverse eye of a born monogamist. He showers her with names like “Querida” and “Cara Mia” while reaching to kiss her from fingertip to upper arm. He recalls with an intoxicating look their first date, when they saw Death of a Salesman. He’s less of a Groucho and more of a Desi Arnaz on The Lucy Show, caught in the middle of family dynamics.

Morticia, as played by Lisamarie Harrison, shuffles about in her corset and lacy Goth dress. When she’s thinking, like her Morticia predessors, she gestures with her long fingers flicking like spider legs against crossed arms. She’s maternal, nurturing, honest beyond repair.

What’s a good love story without some fighting that leads to the climax of making up? In a plot twist taken from the 1991 movie, Morticia and Gomez reignite their passion and determine the rules of detente through a tango. Theissen and Harrison take the first steps of the delicate Argentine dance with a severe and magnetic eye-to-eye contact. They embrace as skilled masters not only of this dance, but of each other, of how each cell of them moves and retracts. With the chorus joining in and around the pair, the fog of sex is lifted as Gomez places a headless rose stem in Morticia’s mouth – and the audience, on opening night, erupted with laughter.

Among the Addams family’s most applauded values is their love of ancestry and one another. While this is not the strongest plot point in the musical, the ancestors make a stunning living visual wall or prop throughout the production. The ancestors pop out of history as icons: caveman, conquistador, 18th century courtesan, WW I soldier, to name a few. These ashen shades move as a curtain in some scenes, with light bouncing off their pale figures, making the stage electric and spooky. As spirits who influence the living, but aren’t obvious to a regular Joe human, they add a clever Steampunk accent to the aesthetics of the set.

Isaac Lamb plays Uncle Fester, the shiny-headed and long-coated man who looks more ghoul than mortal. He’s bumbling, a little lost, and terribly lovable. Lamb’s Fester is given some of the evening’s best lines and numbers. In the song “What If,” the lyrics are updated by bringing in the terror of our age: “Did polio need the Salk vaccine? Did Trump need 2016?”

The most enchanting vignette handed to Uncle Fester is “The Moon and Me.” Throughout Broadway Rose’s production, each scene is given layers and layers of set, fabric, light, air and fog. But this number is given even more. It is reminiscent of a life-size automaton with a dense flickering of stars, a vaudeville dance by the pale ancestors with a collage of lace umbrellas and a gorgeous honey-colored moon that moves in and out of the orbit of the love song. By a foreshadowing in the beginning of the show and Lamb’s reputation on stage, you would guess this would be a special point for Broadway Rose’s Addams Family. It exceeds the setup and expectations. After it ends, you wish you could somehow contain it and keep it in a box.

Broadway Rose’s Addams Family is as faithful an adaptation as you can find to the many forms these American outsiders have taken. Devotees to the cult will enjoy the little inside jokes, and audience members who are familiar with the Addamses, but not read in the dark arts, will enjoy it for its elaborate and thoughtful production. For one evening, as Americans we can agree, its more than OK to be part of a band of outsiders.

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Broadway Rose’s The Addams Family continues through July 23 in the Deb Fennell Auditorium in Tigard. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

 

 

 

One Response. Have your say.

  1. Thank you for your lovely review of Adams Family.

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