From its origin, The Addams Family was a sophisticated series of one-panel cartoons in The New Yorker magazine. Their subtlety and nuance flew over the heads of rubes who didn’t always get the jokes. The 1960s black-and-white TV sitcom, followed by two color movies during the 1990s, nearly drowned cartoonist Charles Addams’ mordant wit with treacle.
But the music and lyrics of Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party) and the book by Woody Allen pal Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice for this Addams Family restore some of the bite of the originals. The musical Addams clan wears black because they’re Gothamites who live not in a haunted castle but in Central Park.
Musically, Lippa’s Addams Family could not avoid the finger-snapping syncopation of the opening number, even if borrowed from the TV sitcom. But after that, Lippa breaks loose to show us his versatility. To prepare for this panoply, Cortland Repertory Theatre has assembled eight performers under the baton of Aimee Radics, as they deliver rhythms tailored for different players from jazz and swing to Sondheim and flamenco (especially for Gomez).
We already know the Addams household, starting with leering, smarmy Gomez (Jimmy Johansmeyer) and vampirish, bosomy Morticia (Caitlin Diana Doyle). Everyone is dressed to resemble the earlier incarnations: hollow-eyed Wednesday (Natalee Merrill-Boyer), snotty Pugsley (Seamus Gailor), cadaverous Uncle Fester (Lionel Ruland), mop-haired Grandmama (Rebecca McGraw) and lock-jointed Lurch (Nicholas Carroll).
As each is such a defined individual, the family cannot become a chorus. That function is served by 10 light-footed and ghostly “ancestors,” in white costumes and makeup. Choreographer Robin Levine handles this group splendidly, as they appear to break through to the family members who never “see” them. They’re also from different earlier eras, such as the Viking (Lukas Miller) and the Stewardess (Liz Fallon).
While no one breaks character, Brickman and Elice come up with a plot unrelated to the sitcom but possibly borrowed from La Cage aux Folles. Scowling Wednesday announces that she is smitten with Lucas (Brian Reiff), child of the straight-arrow Beineke family of Ohio. “A swing state,” Gomez opines. Alice Beineke (Jeremy Parker) arrives in sunburst yellow, an affront to the Addams color sensibility, and father Mal Beineke (Cortland Repertory producing artistic director Kerby Thompson) sports an American flag lapel pin.
Although the plot leads to some clever moments, much of the time The Addams Family runs like commedia dell’arte, in which characters do variations on their own foibles. Uncle Fester, in particular, is immersed in an impossible, unrealizable love affair with the moon. Although Charles Addams himself never nudged Fester in this direction, the surprising yet absurd pathos of this device is one of a dozen ways the musical separates itself from the previous versions.
Lippa’s musical also served as a vehicle for star Nathan Lane as the paternal Gomez. Longtime Cortland Repertory costume designer Jimmy Johansmeyer, making a rare appearance before the footlights, seizes this opportunity to play the Spanish-accented Gomez and runs with it. Under director Bert Bernardi’s deft handling, Johansmeyer knocks out three solos in the first act. Despite his time spent with sewing machines, Johansmeyer connects perfectly with Lane-ian excess.
Willowy Caitlin Diana Doyle makes a commanding visual and vocal presence as Morticia, although mordant verbal humor is not her strong suit. Instead it is blond Ms. Jeremy Parker as the gauche Alice Beineke who steals the hilarity laurels in her show-stopping “Waiting.” Underneath that chamber-of-commerce exterior rages a ghoul wanna-be.
The enormous fun of The Addams Family makes a perfect fit within Cortland Repertory’s intimate space. The show’s many technical demands call for that professional gloss.