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'Addams Family' goes Broadway at Ford Center
By Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald Staff

Evanston native Joan Cusack (center, in white) was the villain Debbie Jellinski in the 1993 Hollywood sequel "Addams Family Values."

 

Morticia Addams (Anjelica Huston) sits with her children, Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman), in the 1991 Hollywood film adaptation of "The Addams Family"

 

The cast of the 1991 Hollywood film version of "The Addams Family."

 

Wesley Taylor and Krysta Rodriguez star as Lucas Beineke and Wednesday Addams in "The Addams Family," now playing at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

 

Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald

Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch codirect "The Addams Family," now playing at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

 

Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald

Kevin Chamberlin plays Uncle Fester in "The Addams Family," now at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

 

Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald

Kevin Chamberlin plays Uncle Fester in "The Addams Family," now at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

 

Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald

"The Addams Family" descends on the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre in Chicago. t C. Morgan

 

Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald

"The Addams Family" descends on the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

 

Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald

Skokie native Stuart Oken is one of the leading producers behind "The Addams Family," now playing at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

 

Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald

Skokie native Stuart Oken is one of the leading producers behind "The Addams Family," now playing at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

 

Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald

"The Addams Family" descends on the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

 

Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald

Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth star as Gomez and Morticia Addams in "The Addams Family," now playing at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

 

Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald

Composer Andrew Lippa ("The Wild Party") pens the score to the Broadway-bound musical version of "The Addams Family."

 

Zachary James stars as the butler Lurch in "The Addams Family," now playing at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

 

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Published: 11/13/2009 12:02 AM

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Mention the "The Addams Family" to most people and they'll likely do a double finger snap for you - and perhaps hum along to the iconic theme song from the merrily macabre family's hit 1960s TV show.

Since the show has been perpetually rerun in syndication, each generation has rediscovered that "kooky" clan, complete with those signature song snaps.

But "The Addams Family" sings a different tune when the new Broadway-bound musical version starts previews today before a Dec. 9 opening at Chicago's Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre. This new musical by composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa ("Jon and Jen," "The Wild Party") and playwrights Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice ("Jersey Boys," "Turn of the Century") is just the latest transformation of the cartoon family.

Morticia, Gomez, Uncle Fester and the rest sprang from the printed page decades ago into a beloved live-action TV series that ran from 1964 to 1966. That show spawned two animated series in the 1970s and 1990s, plus two big-budget movie adaptations - "The Addams Family" in 1991 and "Addams Family Values" in 1993.

Now "The Addams Family" is aiming to sing on the Great White Way in 2010 with two-time Tony Award-winning stars Bebe Neuwirth ("Cheers," "Chicago") and Nathan Lane ("The Producers," "The Birdcage") appearing as the amorous parents Morticia and Gomez Addams.

Spooky sophistication

It was cartoonist Charles Addams (1912-1988) who originally developed his surname-inspired characters. They started appearing separately in a collection of irreverent cartoons in "The New Yorker" magazine in 1938 before he joined them into a set family.

Addams' illustrated work helped bring black humor into America's mainstream comic psyche, according to Andrew Farago, curator and gallery manager of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco.

Farago's museum prominently featured Addams's work in the exhibit "Gross, Gruesome and Gothic" from 2006 to 2007, and he was surprised at the number of patrons who didn't realize that Addams' cartoons predated the TV series.

"People were actually surprised that jokes written in the 1930s and 1940s were still just as funny today." Farago said.

Another trumpeter of Addams' original illustrated comics is Skokie native and lead "Addams Family" producer Stuart Oken. He had a hand in "The Addams Family" musical's current advertising campaign which prominently features the original cartoons instead of photographs of the cast.

When cultural critics lament that yet another movie or TV series is being adapted into a Broadway musical, Oken fires back by saying that his creative team is reaching back to the characters' origins.

"We have classic, one-of-a-kind material," Oken said. "When you're going to start over and create something new, go back to the original source and honor it."

'Addams' expectations

Yet the British team of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, co-directors and designers for the "The Addams Family" musical, is mindful that audiences are expecting some of the same sight gags that were signatures of the TV series and movies.

"We probably wouldn't be here if we hadn't seen the 'The Addams Family' on telly growing up, and we have our own nostalgia about it," admitted Crouch, who with McDermott became famed for codirecting the worldwide hit "Shockheaded Peter" (a musical based upon the German Struwwelpeter tales about children who suffer unfortunate ends because of bad habits).

"You need to kind of honor the mythology that has grown up around it," McDermott said. "But you also want to put surprises in there. We've created this situation where the house is a character that can shift and move and become different places within itself."

Wednesday grows up

But perhaps the most controversial move in the "Addams Family" musical is the aging of daughter Wednesday Addams to an 18 year-old college student (played by Krysta Rodriguez) who falls in love with a hopeless romantic named Lucas Beineke (played by Wesley Taylor). A few negative responses have already been stirred up online in "Addams Family" fan chat rooms.

"People have ideas of what they want to see in Wednesday," Rodriguez said. "In the cartoons, she's about 5, and in the movies, she's about 9 to 10, so there has been a leap for her - she's one of the characters who has already had an evolution. This is just one more spin of the wheel for her character."

"The Addams Family" musical also takes a similar page from popular family comedies stretching from "You Can't Take it With You" to "Meet the Fockers." The main conflict: What happens when one set of in-laws meets the other?

In this case, pandemonium arises when the traditionally conservative Beineke parents from Ohio, played by Broadway veterans Terrence Mann and Carolee Carmello, venture into the eccentric Addams family home.

"It's a wonderful plot device," said Kevin Chamberlin, who plays Uncle Fester and the show's narrator. "And it's something that happens every day. I remember meeting my other half's parents and being terrified - and being gay on top of it! But it's a wonderfully human part of the story."

Rounding out the cast is Adam Riegler as Wednesday's brother, Pugsley, Zachary James as the butler Lurch and Jackie Hoffman as Grandma.

While Chicago has had its share of smash hit Broadway tryouts - including "The Producers," "Spamalot" and "Aida" - it also has had its share of duds ("The Pirate Queen," "The Goodbye Girl"). The largely local team behind "The Addams Family" is hoping for a hit, and producers anticipate that the general public's curiosity about a new singing "Addams Family" will be piqued thanks to pre-existing familiarity with Addams' mysterious and spooky creations.

"The Addams Family" characters "already look like they're in an opera," said co-director Crouch. "So it's only natural that they would sing."

"The Addams Family"

Location: Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and select Wednesdays. No shows Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. In previews now through Dec. 10. Regular run Dec. 9 through Jan. 10. (800) 775-2000 or BroadwayinChicago.com

Tickets: $28-$105, with premium seating available