The Addams Family

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Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

By Philip Pearce

THE ADDAMS FAMILY, a popular, well-performed, and predictable musical now playing at Cabrillo Stage in Aptos, is about some gothic horror stereotypes who started life in a series of New Yorker cartoons back in the mid-20th century. This off-beat cartoon family included two children who celebrated Christmas by decapitating their dolls and teddy bears with a new toy guillotine. The oldsters meantime observed the holiday by climbing up to an attic ledge with a cauldron of boiling oil to be poured down on some merry carolers gathered on the doorstep of their creaky gothic mansion. The humor lay in the ways this tribe of ghouls blithely performed creepy atrocities as if they were carrying on normal middle-American family activities.

As a running joke aimed at both folksy middle class social attitudes and the clichés of B-picture horror films the idea worked well in its cartoon format. To stretch it into a two and a quarter hour Broadway musical seems to me creates a mountain sized entertainment mole hill.

I have to add that I’m a voice crying in the wilderness. The production at the Crocker is directed by Bobby Marchessault with an eye to slick and well-mounted popular appeal and that’s what it clearly got last Friday night. Every number in Andrew Lippa’s routine musical score, every plot twist and punch line in the lively but hollow book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, earned tumultuous shouts, shrill whistles, and thunderous applause.

The script hangs the plot on daughter Wednesday Addams’ announcement that she’s engaged to a dull but “normal” middle-westerner named Lucas Beineke. That makes it clear what lies ahead. As with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or Abie’s Irish Rose, a nice young couple’s love is going to break down strong cultural barriers between their respective families. By the end of Act 1, of course, it hasn’t happened.  Wednesday and Lucas are at odds and so are her parents, Morticia and Gomez, and his parents, Mal and Alice. Act 2 covers the reunion of the three sets of warring lovers.

The performances are fine. As papa Gomez Addams, Adam Saucedo acts impressively and sings with power and flexibility. The character’s Hispanic persona has had an influence on the musical score, which leans heavily on tango rhythms and a final, explosive flamenco routine between Gomez and his wife Morticia, played by gorgeous and spooky Danielle Crook.

Young Michael Navarro is wonderful as the junior Addams offspring, a small, charming masochist thug named Pugsley. He figures in one of the few sequences that actually reflect the spirit of the New Yorker cartoons. Singing a song called “Pulled” he is tied to a makeshift rack in the nursery while his sister uses a remote control wheel to stretch him, a process he is obviously delighted to have happen. This and another somewhat peripheral sequence involving a rocket to the moon are high points. It’s when the central plot drones into action that you feel, despite all the offbeat trimmings, that you’ve seen and heard all of this before and too often.

Gabrielle Filloux and Ryland Gordon do well by the conventional roles of Wednesday and her boyfriend Lucas. Act 2 even opens up some unpredictable material for the two of them as they work out ways she can shoot an arrow à la William Tell through the apple on his head. Gordon, along with Benjamin Canant and Jessica Ellithorpe, who play his parents Mal and Alice, sometimes struggles with the tendency of Michael J. McGushin’s ten-piece orchestra to drown out singing voices.

Lurching and bobbing like a windblown balloon, John G. Bridges tackles the role of the super-weird Uncle Fester with his usual unflagging energy. Not to be outdone by all the surrounding romance, he admits that he too is in love, in his case with the Moon, “though we haven’t actually dated yet.” The following sequence, after he finally links up with his lunar beloved, turns out to be the goofiest piece of scenic magic in the show!

David Murphy is effectively tall, dark and menacing as the family butler Lurch, who can only speak in guttural growls until he bursts into guttural song and lyrics in the final moments of the show.

The printed program reveals that the off-stage Deborah McArthur is young and attractive, which may be what makes her on stage performance as 110-year-old Granny Addams a shade too full of squeaky and grimacing energy.

A busy singing and dancing ensemble of Addams ancestors rise from their graves in the opening sequence of an annual Addams family visit to a local cemetery. These ghosts return throughout the action as advisers, reactors, mentors and dance partners to the live characters. They are costumed by Chiara Cola in spectacular historic styles ranging from the American Revolution to World War 1. Like Skip Epperson’s spoof gloomy sets, the costumes have an off-beat originality I wish were present in the too familiar and predictable ins and outs of the script and the score.

But maybe an easy familiarity is what the writers aimed at in their words and music. Maybe, like Seinfeld and the Beverly Hillbillies, the Addamses have become such mainstays of our national culture that there’s no longer any need for shock or surprise.

The show continues through July 9th.

Peter and the Starcatcher

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By Philip Pearce

WITH ALL THOSE FLOATING GONDOLAS and flying chandeliers late 20th century Broadway offered us hydraulic theatre at its slickest. But early 21st century Broadway seems to be evolving into a riskier age of athletic theatre. More and more it’s all up to the actors. With minimal props and no scenery, Simon Stephens’ prizewinning stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time features eleven performers whose bodies create settings, set up and take down usable doorways, operate together as a moving passenger train—do physically whatever the script requires at the moment it’s required. They’re on stage not so much as detailed character studies than as active elements in a story-telling structure.

It’s much the same with the show Pacific Rep has just opened at the Golden Bough. There is scenery and the complicated plot deals with characters we’ve met long ago in children’s fiction. And these characters are involved in adventures harking back to the reign of Queen Victoria. But the pervading spirit of can-do improv makes this a very modern play. John Farmanesh-Bocca cleverly directs twelve gifted local actors performing more than thirty roles in an inspired swashbuckling spoof called Peter and the Starcatcher.

Peter is the name eventually given to an angry, repressed, silent and nameless orphan, played by Aaron Kitchin with a brooding sensitivity that contrasts nicely with the bounce and explosive activity of everybody else on stage. He’s one of a trio of workhouse orphans who gets sold to a sea captain as unpaid deckhands aboard a ship called The Neverland. Not surprisingly, the embittered thirteen-year-old boy is convinced that all adults are sadistic liars, so he doesn‘t ever want to grow up. His salvation is the starcatcher of the title, a feisty upper class girl named Molly Aster, played with appealing energy and wit by the delightful Bri Slama. Molly evades her nanny and sneaks out of first-class and down into the hold, where, Wendy-like, she charms the three lost boys by telling them bedtime stories. Her energetic friendship, along with a lot of adventurous nonsense involving a sea-chest filled with stardust and a nervous trainee pirate named Black Stache, turns the orphaned loaner into an airborne daredevil called Peter Pan.

John Newkirk soars gloriously over the top as the blustering but scaredy-cat pirate king Black Stache. Proud of his moustache but struggling with a shaky self-image, Stache is the goofiest in a big roster of goofy characters and Newkirk plays him to the hilt. I was particularly delighted with the moment when, in a neat homage to a classic Marx Brothers routine, he preens in front of a framed mirror that seems at first to hold his strutting reflection—or is that a costumed double (Kitchin) who’s been trained to copy his every move? The fact that this struggling buccaneer has a sidekick named Smee, acted with high-powered smarmy aplomb by Jared W. Hussey, leaves little doubt that when the misused orphan becomes the bumptious Peter Pan, neurotic Stache will lose a hand and blossom into a nasty Captain Hook.

There are eight more actors, each with his own named character and place in the story. Scott McQuiston is wonderful as Molly’s starchy but romantically vulnerable governess Miss Brumbrake. Richard Boynton plays her grubby, flatulent but adoring seagoing suitor Alf. James Brady is Molly’s properly patriotic Victorian papa Lord Aster. Peter’s two orphan sidekicks are identically dressed but nicely individualized by Skip Kadish as the ambitious but clueless Prentiss and Stephen Poletti as the amiable chow-hound Ted. Then there is versatile Michael D. Jacobs in a series of roles, ranging from the sadistic orphanage manager to some pretty dastardly sailors. Bob Colter is also on hand, all fuss and frustration as a sneaky sailor named Slank who really starts the treasure hunt by switching two identical sea-chests.

Peter and the Starcatcher calls for the kind of ensemble work that allows little time for waiting in the wings till you’re cued for your next appearance. Your assigned character may be having a rest, but you are more than likely to be on stage as a roistering pirate or in a hilarious second-act chorus line of fin-waving mermaids.

The overall treasure hunt plot is clear and basic enough, but, if anything, Rick Elice’s adaptation of the Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson novel tricks it out with a few too many clever twists and turns. Act 1 lasts an hour, Act 2, 55 minutes. It’s all live and wonderfully energetic, but maybe goes on ten or twelve minutes too long.

It’s not really a kid’s show either, at least not for the very young. The script is loaded with clever wordplay, clean but tricky double-entendres, historic and literary references and challenging bits of foreign vocabulary. A family with two small girls seated next to me found it all too sophisticated and slipped out during the first act. But if you love the wit and wisdom of J. M. Barrie, as I do, and want to find out how Peter learned to fly and how Hook lost his hand, this is a loud, lively and satisfying evening of fun.

It continues at the Golden Bough through July 16th. Having mounted this funny prequel, PacRep will then offer a full-scale production of Peter Pan in the renovated outdoor Forest Theater opening August 17.