'Addams Family': Undead on arrival

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"The Addams Family" at Media Theater stars Jennie Eisenhower as Morticia and Jeff Coons as Gomez, who play their roles for real and thus make sense beyond the laughs they generate. (MARK JORDAN)

Perfect. Night on Bald Mountain sounded both malevolent and playful on organ, in a recording wafting out of the Media Theatre speakers that set the scene for The Addams Family - the musical version that was the delightful near-death experience it was meant to be.

Descended from the popular cartoon, TV show, and Hollywood film about a ghoulish family that embraces darkness, depression, torture, and death over the usual chipper stuff, The Addams Family musical was hardly the Broadway hit that it promised to be in 2011. However, Media Theatre takes chances on less-than-sturdy properties and, in this case, pulls it off just in time for Halloween, partly thanks to a pair of stars - Jeffrey Coon and Jennie Eisenhower - who weren't about to follow in the footsteps of their Broadway predecessors.

With songs by Andrew Lippa and book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, The Addams Family is a throwback to the sort of middling-hit 1950s musical that was the backbone of what is now called the golden age of Broadway. The classic structure has tandem love interests (the older couple are Gomez and Morticia Addams, the younger, daughter Wednesday and her relatively normal fiancé) as well as choruses that come out of nowhere, a conceit motivated here by a gaggle of dead ancestors who weren't able to get back to their graves after Walpurgisnacht.

Though I didn't see the Broadway original, the cast album had Nathan Lane sporting an intentionally fake Spanish accent and Bebe Neuwirth sounding otherworldly in a somewhat annoyingly gothic vibrato. In contrast, Coon and Eisenhower played their roles for real, with perverse inner lives that were no joke to them and thus made sense beyond the laughs they generated.

What emerged was an Addams clan not that far removed from some of the more insular New Yorkers I've known (a breed sometimes called "urban peasants"). With her imperious jawline and high cheekbones, Eisenhower's Morticia could easily be found in a box seat at the Metropolitan Opera. Coon's Gomez was basically an undead Ricky Ricardo. As daughter Wednesday, Lauren Cupples was what Tennessee Williams would call a "no-neck monster" (but in captivity). The square-cut in-laws from Ohio could be played entirely for laughs, but Krissy Fraelich's truth-serum scene was almost too affecting for a comic romp.

Directed and choreographed by Dann Dunn, the production is fairly basic, but gives the show most of what it needs, possible exceptions being the second-act secondary-character songs - Uncle Fester's "The Moon and Me" - with scenic demands that are bound to stretch the resources of a non-Broadway production.

I missed Thing (the helpful but disembodied hand that arises out of a box), who was largely absent. The consolation prize was Cousin Itt (who is sort of a mobile disembodied wig). But the fact that I didn't miss Thing until Act II is, in fact, a considerable compliment.

 


THEATER REVIEW

The Addams Family

Songs by Andrew Lippa, book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Directed by Dann Dunn, designed by Matthew Miller.

Through Nov. 2 at Media Music Theatre, 104 E. Stat St., Media, PA

Tickets: $25-$42.

Information: 610-891-0100, mediatheatre.org.


dstearns@phillynews.com