The 'Addams Family' musical can't be stopped

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 5, 2012 - 6:08 PM

The comic Goth family created by cartoonist Charles Addams has spanned several generations. Now comes the musical.

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"The Addams Family"

They've been a panel cartoon, a TV show, two movies, an animated cartoon and now a stage musical. We need only await "The Addams Family opera" to complete our entertainment menu about Gomez, Morticia and their ooky, kooky clan. (Producers, please note: That opera idea is mine and I want a cut.)

Twin Cities audiences get their first local look at the musical on Tuesday when the national tour lands at the Ordway Center in St. Paul. Critics were thoroughly dismissive when the show opened in 2010 with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth, Broadway royalty both, headlining the cast. The gibes, however, did not prevent the show from running for nearly two years; such is the allure of these silly and macabre characters.

"We've been drawn to the dark side," said actor Douglas Sills, who plays Gomez on the tour. "We're fascinated and frightened, and when we examine it in safe settings like comedy, it becomes less scary."

Well. There was never anything you might term scary in the 150 panel cartoons that Charles Addams penned for the New Yorker magazine. Same with the TV show, which ran from 1964 to 1966 and gave names to the family members and brought them to audiences who thought the New Yorker was a fancy automobile.

The humor landed in its twisted and wry glances at ordinary situations. This was a family of modest people who paid their taxes, sent their children to school and welcomed neighbors into their home. But where we might sunbathe; they moon-bathed. We would cultivate rose blooms; Morticia admired a vase of thorny stems. Cute little Wednesday favored a headless doll she called Marie Antoinette. And how could you not love Uncle Fester, a bald guy who put lightbulbs in his mouth and lit up a room?

The franchise spawned a different vision of the family in two early-1990s movies, starring Raúl Julia and Anjelica Huston. The musical went back to the original cartoons as source material, but the images from popular culture are indelible.

Sills, who lives in Los Angeles, played the title role when "The Scarlet Pimpernel" came to the Ordway in 2000. He was Tony-nominated for the role when the show was on Broadway. He has also toured with "Into the Woods" and "The Secret Garden."

In an interview, Sills said he did not pore over the work of past masters such as John Astin, Julia and Lane when he fashioned his version of Gomez Addams. He never saw the movies, but TV reruns fed his head as a child and he watched Roger Rees' version on Broadway after Lane left the show.

"I felt the best thing for me was to come into rehearsal prepared to take risks, play off the other actors and give [director] Jerry Zaks some strong choices," Sills said. "This part is very elastic."

Ordway involvement

It is no accident that "The Addams Family" chose the Ordway for its two-week tour engagement. Put on your reading glasses and look way down on the list of producers in the program. You will see something called "Elephant Eye Theatricals."

The Ordway joined four other performing arts centers in 2005 to form an LLC that pitched in with Elephant Eye to develop book musicals for Broadway. "The Addams Family" is one of the products of that effort.

The Ordway is also part of the Independent Producers Network, which invests in shows and then guarantees the road rights to its members. "Legally Blonde" and "The Color Purple" are examples of this arrangement.

"It's not about making a return on investment, although we have come out infinitesimally ahead," said Ordway president Patricia Mitchell. "We do it for artistic reasons, not financial ones. We get road rights and we develop material for the regional musical theater producers."

Elephant Eye Theatrical leavens the risk for any of its individual investors, which also means that rewards are not felt as fully. "The Addams Family" is on a 14-month national tour and just launched a South American production in São Paulo, Brazil. Talks are in the works for a European spin.

"You've heard the phrase 'trickle-down economics'?" Mitchell said. "Down the line, we'll make a nickel -- and that will be about a nickel."

Mitchell goes back to the TV show and the New Yorker cartoons when she thinks of "The Addams Family." Asked about her favorite character, she confessed a fondness for Fester.

"You have to love the guy who has a really good number, and Fester has the greatest number in this musical," she said.

Sills, who is contracted for the tour through the end of June, said it always is fun for an actor to travel with a comedy. He need not wake up each day with the burden of King Lear or Richard III on his shoulders. He's Gomez, a man who gets riled only when his wife speaks French. And that's a good kind of riled.

"The Addams Family is so deep in the American psyche," Sills said. "I'm always surprised."

  • THE ADDAMS FAMILY MUSICAL

    What: Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. Directed by Jerry Zaks.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.-next Sun. Ends May 20.

    Where: Ordway Center, 5th and Washington Sts., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $27-$88. 651-224-4222 or ordway.org.

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