It all began with Charles Addams, the cartoonist. Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester, Thing, Lurch, Grandmama, Wednesday, Pugsley, all figments of his fertile imagination. These characters, familial anti-heroes who originally appeared in the pages of the New Yorker, from 1938 onwards, have probably enriched our culture as much as Hamlet or Holmes, Fagin or Felix The Cat, Godot or God. Collectively, the Addamses might be intended as an antithetical satire on what should embody a functional unit but, growing up with them as my black-and-white television family, they always seemed like one of which I’d be proud to be a member; notwithstanding the odd dismember (Thing). I’m not sure what that says about me, but I suspect I wouldn’t be Robinson Crusoe.
In this way (as with, I suspect, so many others), I approached The Addams Family: The Broadway Musical with a good deal of affection on the one hand; a commensurate or greater quotient of scepticism on the other. I’d (deliberately) read nothing about the show, but had heard that, in the US, it’d proved a hit with the public while panned by critics. As a consequence, my expectations were, if anything, lowered further.
So it was an especially pleasant surprise to find the show to be well-written and quite thoroughly entertaining; gently amusing, heartwarming and a very slick production indeed. Andrew Lippa’s music is well-orchestrated and doesn’t overplay the central theme; in fact, there are probably those who would’ve been disappointed by the restraint shown as regards Vic Mizzy’s harpsichord-centric song, although we did get one or two opportunities to finger-snap along. Lippa also wrote the lyrics, which seem to work hand-in-glove with the comedic sensibility of the book, by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, Nat Perrin’s vision for the television series and Charles Addams’ macabre whimsy. In other words, the pitch of the humour feels about write, without being religiously adherent to its predecessors in other media.
The biggest surprise and star is John Waters: I knew the guy was talented and in a number of directions, but I’d no idea he was this versatile. Under Jerry Zaks guiding directorial hand, he’s successfully tapped into the sympathies the generous, accommodating, good-natured “TV Gomez” (John Astin) engendered, while endowing the character with his own stamp. It seemed quite an inspired decision to join the dots with the 1991 film adaptation, starring Puerto Rican-born actor Raul Julia, by giving Waters licence to affect something of a Latin air (even if he sounded vaguely Scot, to begin with). Of course, he’s no Anthony Warlow in the singing department, but he fudges it brilliantly, in the best tradition of actor-singers down through the generations. He’s convincing when tackling the tango with Morticia (the statuesque Chloe Dallimore), and pulls off the role, as a whole, with aplomb, emerging as the heart and soul of the whole show.
Dallimore has her moments, of course, not least in the big dance numbers, which call her primary talents to the fore. Ben Hudson looks uncannily akin to Lurch as drawn by C. S. Addams, proving a popular favourite, even though his contributions are relatively minimal (his key one being to look the part; he partially sounds it, but it’s almost impossible to emulate the bass baritone gravel of televisual counterpart Ted Cassidy). Blake Hurford shows particular promise as Pugsley, a devoutly morbid boy, hell-bent on perversity. Meredith O’Reilly is a colourfully eccentric Grandma, not entirely removed from one of my own. Russell Dykstra is a loveable Fester: the role’s written that way (you’d have to be hard-hearted not to succumb to his love for the moon, which results in one especially magical scene of a kind that, in all likelihood, would favourably remain with youngsters all their days), but Dykstra takes it over the line. Tegan Wouters, as Wednesday, proves herself her mother’s daughter: headstrong, independent woman apparently oblivious to any glass ceiling.
In fact, it’s interesting that, having been written by men, the female characters are, in many ways, the most interesting, robust and attractive, for reasons other than the usual, more chauvanistic ones. Tony Harvey stands out as Mal Beineke, a hippie whose arteries and imagination have hardenened like concrete. Likewise, the rhyming, retiring Alice Beineke, played by Katrina Retallick. In keeping with the seeming, intriguing emphasis on strong feminine roles, Alice breaks the metrical and marital chains that bind, blossoming as a force to be reckoned with.
In many ways, the most impressive arts associated with this musical lie behind the scenes: the original direction and design, by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, has diecast a production machine that runs with Teutonic precision; Tom Watson’s hair and Angelina Avallone’s make-up make the ghoulish Addams ancestors look as macabre as anything a Tim Burton could create; Greg Meeh’s special effects achieve the aforementioned fantasticality of Fester’s long-distance travel.
The poetic licence is in Wednesday being considerably more advanced in years than Pugsley, fallen in love with the “normal” Luke Beineke. This concession to rom-com conventionality is enough, along with some earthy Yiddisher wit, to sustain the action, especially through the first act; the second is a little more disparate, but just creeps past the goalposts, thanks to sinewy performances, tautness, dance sequences, pace and panache.
It’s not the kind of show you’ll reminisce about in your dotage, I shouldn’t think. You probably won’t return to it, as you might a Fiddler On The Roof or Jesus Christ Superstar. But it’s the epitome of the proverbial good night out — whether you’re living, dead, or undecided. Maybe a great one, if you’ve kids. If you tire of the show, you can always watch their faces.
A further consolation may be that, even compared with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth, John Waters and Chloe Dallimore really dazzle.
The details: The Addams Family plays the Capitol Theatre, booking until May 12. Tickets via Ticketmaster.