Family Matters – The Addams Family musical scares up laughs at the Schuster

Addams Family - OriginalThey say you can never go home again, but that’s not always true. From March 5 – 10, people in the Dayton area can return to one of everyone’s favorite childhood haunts, Addams Manor, as the hit Broadway musical The Addams Family takes up residence at the Schuster Center. And whether you grew up with their New Yorker cartoons, the original 1960s sitcom, the ‘90s films, or any of the various animated and live-action spinoffs over the decades, you know that once you’ve met these characters, they’re always a part of you.

A beloved staple of American pop culture, the Addams Family has walked among us for 75 years, tracing back to their first appearance — unnamed but looking essentially as we know them today — in The New Yorker as drawn by cartoonist Charles Addams. The artist was best known for his one-panel illustrations in the famed magazine; frequently accompanied by a devastatingly witty one-liner, the humor in his work tended toward jet-black macabre. The familiar Family characters populated a total of 150 single panel cartoons, and approximately half of them were published in the 50 years between their debut and the artist’s death in 1988.

In 1964, ABC debuted (the same week as CBS’ similarly freaky The Munsters, no less) a sitcom based on the characters, which gave them names and fleshed out their lives and connections. Though it only ran for two seasons (ending, also, the same week as The Munsters in 1966), it remained a cult hit that rose from the grave again and again. There was the failed 1973 pilot for
The Addams Family Fun-House, a musical comedy variety show(?!) with Jack Riley and Liz Torres as Gomez and Morticia, comedian Stubby Kaye as Fester, and Butch Patrick (Eddie Munster!) as Pugsley. There was an animated appearance on an episode of The New Scooby Doo Movies, with most of the original series cast voicing the characters…which led to a 1973-75 Saturday morning cartoon produced by Hanna-Barbera. Oddly enough, this show featured the family cruising the country in a Victorian mansion-type RV — oh, and eight-year-old Jodie Foster voicing Pugsley. In ‘77, the live-action series cast reunited for a (dreadful) TV-movie, Halloween with the New Addams Family.

The casts of the 1966 TV series and the 1991 film

The casts of the 1966 TV series and the 1991 film

And then, they returned to the A-list. Paramount’s 1991 big-screen take on the characters was a smash hit and introduced the characters to a new generation. Helmed by the late Raul Julia’s gleefully madcap Gomez and Academy Award winner Anjelica Huston’s seductively steely Morticia, the movie spun off another Saturday morning cartoon and a popular sequel, Addams Family Values, as well as launching the career of Christina Ricci, who played Wednesday.

Broadway beckoned, and after more than three years of development, The Addams Family slithered onto the stage in April 2010 with the picture-perfect casting of Tony and Emmy winners Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth heading the cast. It was a success, running for 725 performances and snagging two Tony nominations (Best Score, and Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Kevin Chamberlin as Fester) and eight Drama Desk nods. (Interesting piece of trivia: Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson was in talks to take over the role of Morticia when the show closed.) Now, touring productions of the musical are planned for almost every continent.

In the musical, we meet the family at a time of great conflict. This premise will be familiar to anyone who’s seen La Cage Aux Folles, also known as The Birdcage: 18-year-old Wednesday invites her boyfriend to dinner to meet her folks. Unfortunately, he’s also bringing his folks, who happen to be a couple of bland, uptight buzzkills from — of course — Ohio. She begs her family to act “normal,” a word which, of course, carries a somewhat different meaning to the Addamses…

The show, written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (Jersey Boys) with music by Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party), has been significantly reworked for the tour version, which differs a good bit from the original Broadway incarnation. Four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks guided an extensive revision that cut three songs, added three new ones, and restructured two others. Storylines were changed and rebuilt as well, including some major changes that removed a plot twist involving the family’s giant pet squid. The effort paid off, fashioning a tighter, fast-moving, more character-driven show that places Gomez and Morticia front and center and ties everything together in a more organic fashion.

Shaun Rice as Uncle Fester

Shaun Rice as Uncle Fester

The jovial Uncle Fester is our guide for the evening’s events, which provide plenty of the expected laughs and romance while also showing off these classic characters in ways we’ve never seen before. Happy-go-lucky Gomez seems to ruin everything he touches and can’t please anyone. Eternal beauty Morticia, approaching middle age, fears growing older, and the two find themselves having their first marital spat and staring into a half-empty nest as their firstborn prepares to take flight. We see Wednesday as an adult with her well-known independent streak now influenced by the realization that the real world and the world she grew up in are two very different things. Pugsley is afraid that if he loses his sister, there’ll be no one to torture him anymore. And, perhaps most touching of all, this incarnation of Fester is almost childlike in his innocence and unconditional love.

It works, and it makes for a terrific evening of theatre. The script is packed with huge belly laughs and so many throwaway gags that by the time you finish laughing at one, you’ve likely missed two more. The in-law characters have depth and humor (Blair Anderson as Alice is particularly dynamite in her showcase number). Jennifer Fogarty’s deadpan delivery and incredibly strong voice make Wednesday a real standout. And Amanda Bruton nearly steals the whole show as Grandma, played like a salty, funky, ancient hippie just old enough to not care what comes out of her mouth. Jesse Sharp as Gomez drives the proceedings with boundless energy and zest, bringing the house down with his mindless comedic rants and witty asides. He and Bruton easily score the biggest and longest laughs of the evening, while Shaun Rice’s joyous, soulful Fester unexpectedly forms the heart of the show.

“He’s a little different from how we’ve seen him in the movies and the TV show,” said Rice. “He’s more similar to the original comics. He’s very sweet and is kind of the narrator of the show. Each character has their own sort of musical style in terms of the songs they do, and he has this kind of old-timey, song-and-dance, vaudeville style. There’s a wonderful song in Act Two where Fester sort of interrupts the action to tell us about the love of his life that really shows him at his best.”

Rice started out doing theatre in the Tampa Bay area at a very young age, then began directing before enrolling in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. And this isn’t his first experience bringing a treasured ‘60s sitcom to the stage: Rice put in some time playing Jonas “The Skipper” Grumby in Gilligan’s Island: The Musical back in the ‘80s.

“This show has been my proudest achievement so far,” he said. “It’s been fantastic. The Addams Family is so iconic. I grew up watching the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, and of course, I saw the movies as an adult, and it’s just a dream come true to be part of such an iconic thing in pop culture. These characters are so simple and silly in some ways, but they’re also more than that because they represent that part of us that never quite fit in. Everyone loves this family. When certain characters show up, the audience just goes nuts for them, and we don’t have to spend a lot of time laying groundwork or explaining who we are. The minute we walk out onstage, you know where you are and who you’re with, and you can really feel how excited and comfortable the audience is being with these characters again. It’s so much fun.”

Actor Jesse Sharp as Gomez

Actor Jesse Sharp as Gomez

“People just eat it up,” said Jesse Sharp, who plays Gomez. “I’ve been on a couple of Broadway tours before and never had audiences react to a show the way they do here. I like that it’s a very sweet family show, but it’s also a comedy. People can expect to have an easy, good time.”

Frazier Park, California native Sharp studied acting at UCLA while performing sketch and improv comedy before relocating to New York to pursue musical theatre and eventually landing in classical theatre doing the Shakespeare festival circuit. His pet creation, the raucous Hamlet Project (“basically a drinking game version of Hamlet we do in bars”) caught on big enough in L.A. that it now has a spinoff version in Chicago and is continuing to expand.

And in the meantime, he’s spending the next year and a half traveling the U.S., Canada, and Asia with the world’s favorite ghoulish gaggle.

“I’ve played a lot of best friends and funny sidekicks during my career, so playing Gomez has been a real highlight. Our tour is still just getting started. It’s still early on for us, and down the line, we’re heading to a part of the world I’ve never been to, and we just go onstage and have fun every night. I’m incredibly excited.”

The Addams Family runs March 5 – 10 at the Schuster Center. Tickets are $40 – $96. For military and student and more information, visit http://www.victoriatheatre.com/shows/the-addams-family/ or call (937) 228-3630.

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The Duante Beddingfield is a nocturnal mammal found at watering holes throughout the Dayton region. Its diet consists of vodka and cheese, and it is noted for its hypnotic scent and brightly colored plumage, which it displays as part of courtship. It has two short, fixed fangs in the front of the mouth which channel venom into the prey like hypodermic needles. It can be easily irritated by pickles, death metal, and knock-knock jokes.


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