"The Addams Family" is not the first musical whose first national tour has been infinitely better than the Broadway production that gave birth to it: such past shows as "Big" and "The Civil War" were also greatly improved. But in most of these rare cases, different directors have retooled existing material. It's hard to think of another show that has been revised so heavily and, for the most part, successfully, by its admirably indefatigable original authors and composer.
"The Addams Family" that returns to Chicago this week, and this week only, does not come with Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth and the sense of must-see excitement and pumped-up pizazz that pervaded its pre-Broadway engagement at the Oriental Theatre in 2009. That's the downside. But if Gomez, Morticia and the crew do not arrive like rock stars, this enjoyable if visually simplified national tour features many different songs from the Chicago tryout and a significantly improved and far more satisfying story.
And yes, it is plenty different enough that fans of the "Addams Family" franchise, especially those who have followed this show through its various traumas and trajectories (which we've extensively reported in these pages), might find it worth buying a cheap seat at the back and seeing what has gone on since Uncle Fester last fell in love with a Chicago moon. If you're interested in seeing how multimillion-dollar shows can morph, you'll find it quite fascinating. And I'll guarantee you one thing: it won't seem like the same show.
Finally, the director Jerry Zaks (who replaced Phelim McDermott during the first Chicago run) has been allowed to finish his kind of classic musical-comedy approach, most of the buzz-killing structural issues in the book have been resolved and, perhaps most importantly of all, everyone on the stage now comes off as sufficiently loose and relaxed that the zesty one-liners get to do their collective thing, and the show is actually allowed to be unpretentious and funny. This third shot at the piece by writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and composer Andrew Lippa most certainly has the most charm and efficacy. If only everyone had started somewhere near here. But then, if this stuff were easy, everyone would do it.
In case you missed the long version, here's a short list of what's been done, chez Addams.
Like the original Chicago-to-Broadway version, which closes this weekend in New York, the Addams Family of a topsy-turvy Central Park are rocked on their heels by the news that their beloved creepy Wednesday (having grown so fast that she might as well be Thursday) wants to marry a square Ohioan, who is bringing his parents, the Beinekes (Martin Vidnovic and, at Tuesday's opening, the amusing Victoria Huston-Elem), to dinner. But whereas the Beinekes (and an amorous squid) used to steal the show from the family on the marquee, the new version has them playing supporting roles, which is good, since no-one came to the theater to see the invented Beinekes.
In 3.0, the main conflict is (as it should always have been) between Gomez and Morticia, a couple whose practice of sharing everything is undermined by Wednesday's decision to tell only her puppy-dog papa about her pending inappropriate nuptials, and the father-and-daughter pair's decision not to tell creepy mama. This puts Gomez (now played, with lower status but considerable charm, by Douglas Sills) in a guilty bind, aided by a zesty new number from Lippa called "Trapped," and causes his Morticia (the very game and sexy Sara Gettelfinger) not only to lament the sudden lack of trust in their marriage but to deny Gomez his regular bedroom favors, which does not go down well. Things develop from there.
It's hard to overstate how crucial that seemingly simple change in the set-up turns out to be — mostly because it gives the Addams parents the internal conflict that allows them to assume the center of their own show, letting the Beinekes off the narrative hook. It's not the only improvement. The ensemble of ancestors, a group of characters who were both perplexing and redundant in the first two versions of this show, now make some actual sense, since it's now Addams family cohesion that is being threatened and the ancestors, who are much better-used now, have a vested interest in preventing that from happening.
There's more. As played by Patrick D. Kennedy, Pugsley finally has both creepy charm and a note of vulnerability, while both Fester (the warm-centered Blake Hammond) and Lurch (Tom Corbell), two characters that were strong from the start, remain free to have fun with the audience and enjoy the new lighter atmosphere. Cortney Wolfson is a decently caustic Wednesday (whose role feels a little smaller) and Brian Justin Crum's Lucas is now more of a geek, and thus funnier. Only Grandma (Pippa Pearthree) seems to have lost some of her potency, but then it's tough for anyone to follow Jackie Hoffman in that particular signature role.
The producers of the show have said that this new version will be the model for future international roll-outs of the piece, including plans for London. In that case, they'll need to amp and scale the show back up and regain the sense of occasion that greeted "The Addams Family" when the curtain first rose on their creepy lair. Stakes will have to rise again; the show feels less ambitious now, and all that will need to be reconciled. But this time, everything can happen with those upside-down Addams fundamentals finally in place.
When: Through Jan. 1
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 mins.