The Addams Family relies on our enduring affection for a group of death- and darkness-loving misfits created by New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams in the 1940s. His work inspired several television shows and three films before morphing into this musical by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music by Andrew Lippa. The original joke was that the family thought of themselves as perfectly normal, and family heads Gomez and Morticia conducted themselves with a certain reserved elegance, no matter how strange their conversations and macabre their rituals. I read somewhere that Addams’s first job was touching up corpse photos so they’d be less disturbing to the readers of the magazine True Detective; he reportedly preferred the gruesome untouched versions.
The original cartoons were never very scary, though, and the television shows were aimed at children, so it’s no crime that the musical sweetens things up a bit further. Uncle Fester becomes a kindly old soul, given to addressing the audience directly in self-deprecating tones and — he tells us wistfully — hopelessly in love with the moon. It doesn’t hurt that at BDT Stage (formerly Boulder’s Dinner Theatre) he’s played by a spry and capering Wayne Kennedy, who knows how to charm your socks off. His “The Moon and Me” is one of the evening’s highlights. Grandma, embodied with humor by Barb Reeves, is more like your average aging hippie dealing new-age herbs and potions than an evil-minded witch. And we see in looming, stiff-jointed Lurch — another fine performance, this one by Casey Andree — traces of the warm-hearted family retainer.
The plot is conventional. Daughter Wednesday falls for a regular boy, the son of straitlaced parents Mal and Alice Beineke, and though Gomez — who turns out to be a real softie — comes around pretty quickly, rigid Morticia insists on the integrity of the family ethos. To complicate matters, Wednesday has invited young Lucas to their cobweb-infested home for dinner. How will the Beinekes react? How will Gomez and Wednesday bring Morticia around? There are obvious traces here of the stories of many mismatched families in everything from You Can’t Take It With You to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, but given this show’s campy tone, The Birdcage is the best comparison. A complication that makes an already thin story a touch thinner is that Gomez, torn between his wife and daughter, is forced to prevaricate, when a commitment to absolute truth is the foundation of his longstanding and passionate marriage. Then again, you’re not really here for a sophisticated plot, but rather for jokes that come thick and fast, songs that range from melodious to hilarious, energetic dancing and all kinds of exuberant hijinks.
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I’m always amazed by how much more I tend to enjoy musicals on this stage than I do those presented in larger, glitzier venues. The intimacy of the space means you’re not just sitting back and enjoying the action, you’re a part of it. The actors seem to be joking and fooling with you personally, and sometimes taking you into their confidence. This feeling is heightened by the fact that these are the same folks who raced from table to table with your dinner before the show. At one point, I asked Brien Burron, who plays an Addams Ancestor, if he’d ever been hailed by a customer asking for, say, a refill of a Pepsi while he was actually on stage performing. He said he hadn’t, but a woman did once tug impatiently at his costume mid-scene, hissing at him to move because he was blocking her view.
It’s not just the atmosphere, though. There’s serious skill on display here, from set designer Amy Campion — who’s been working with BDT for so many years that she understands precisely all the strengths and defects of the playing area, and knows just how to utilize it to best effect — to costume designer Linda Morken, to Neal Dunfee, who heads the skilled orchestra. All of the performances are strong: There’s also Alicia King as Morticia, Scott Beyette as her dapper Gomez, Brett Ambler’s energetic Lucas, young Ethan Leland as younger brother Pugsley (Leland alternates in the role with Owen Leidich), Scott Severtson playing Mal Beineke, and Sarah Grover, starring as Wednesday, singing with strength and passion and fully exploring the inner struggle between exuberant teen and appropriately sullen Addams misfit. As for Joanie Brosseau’s wild antics when prim Alice Beineke finally discovers her lost inner self, you simply have to experience them for yourself.
The Addams Family, presented by BDT Stage through February 27, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder. 303-449-6000, bdtstage.com.