It’s hard to imagine a more peculiar mix of canny and canned than “The Addams Family,” which opened Tuesday at the Pantages Theatre. Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice and Andrew Lippa’s 2010 musical adaptation of Charles Addams’ celebrated New Yorker cartoon clan stitches together shrewdly maneuvered, innately mismatched elements, and still causes audiences to lose their collective heads.
This had already been the case throughout “Family’s” trek from Chicago to Broadway, where original director-designers Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch of “Shockheaded Peter” fame had given way to director Jerry Zaks. Despite mixed-to-toxic reviews, crowds kept coming and “The Addams Family” ran the better part of two years.
The national tour arrives with further revisions to Brickman and Elice’s book and Lippa’s score. We first see a blood-red Grand Guignol curtain (the key aspect of McDermott and Crouch’s set design). Music director Valerie Gebert’s adept pit launches the overture, the disembodied hand of Thing parts the drape, the title brood stands in crepuscular graveyard tableau, and the house goes berserk.
Spearheaded by ever-bravura Douglas Sills as patriarch Gomez and valiant Sara Gettelfinger as his cadaverous wife, Morticia, the opener, “When You’re an Addams,” certainly establishes the show’s theme – ghoulish kinship to a moldering family tree.
Sergio Trujillo’s Latin-inflected choreography and Crouch and McDermott’s ashen costumes are razor-sharp, and if Lippa’s compositional skills are more proficient than inspired, the number earns its applause.
Then the book kicks in, and things decompose. The singular joke of the cartoons was that the family saw nothing abnormal about its perverse reversal of bourgeois attitudes. Here, they know they’re not normal, courtesy of the by-the-numbers plot foisted on them. Wednesday (Cortney Wolfson) has fallen in love with Ohio tourist Lucas (Brian Justin Crum), and his right-wing parents (Gaelen Gilliland and Martin Vidnovic) are coming to dinner.
This quasi-“You Can’t Take It With You” scenario, along with some visual jokes (including Cousin Itt and a decapitated curtain tassel) and enough pop culture quips to choke Seth MacFarlane, gets the crowds laughing. It also betrays the source material. Wolfson, for instance, is a talented performer in the Sutton Foster mold. Yet to make Wednesday Addams a conventional Broadway ingénue, even one who kills dinner with her crossbow, is to defuse the point.
It’s not Wolfson’s fault, nor her collegues, starting with Sills, whose mix of dashing and audacious remains a gift, and Gettelfinger, a sublime comic actress, albeit somewhat constrained by her deadpan role and dangerous decolletage.
Giving their all are Blake Hammond, whose moon-loving Uncle Fester serves as emcee; Pippa Pearthree, a caterwauling Grandma worthy of an acid trip; precocious Patrick D. Kennedy as torture-and-Wednesday-loving Pugsley; and Tom Corbeil’s towering, Novocaine-faced Lurch. Ditto Crum, Gilliland, Vidnovic and especially the tireless chorus of Addams Ancestors, from Cro-Magnon to Eisenhower eras.
It’s the conflict between twisted tone and old-school approach that fails to coagulate, although Morticia’s mordant “Just Around the Corner” and Fester’s levitating “The Moon and Me” hint at the missed opportunity.
As the curtain call, when the audience auto-claps in rhythm to the reiterated '60s television vamp, reveals, this “Addams Family” needs less commercial craft and more macabre art.
“The Addams Family,” Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays- Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 17. $25 to $95, subject to change. (800) 982-2787 or www.BroadwayLA.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times