Tombstones bearing the dates of bygone centuries welcome audiences to the warehouse performance space. Onstage, an oil portrait of Cousin Itt—a mass of floor-length locks sporting a pair of spectacles—hangs proudly over the Gothic staircase. A full moon illuminates the Addams family boneyard, glimpsed through a wrought-iron estate gate. Canned “buh-da-da-dum (snap snap)” theme music pipes through the sound system as the lights go down.
“It’s kinda spooky,” someone in the back row exclaims.
Enter the seven members of the Addams family, garbed in a crypt-like color palette to match their macabre dispositions.
“Ah, the intoxicating smell of the graveyard,” proclaims Gomez, the Addams patriarch, played by Chris Armijo.
The morbid assembly is instantly recognizable from the cartoons, TV series, movie adaptations and merchandise they’ve inspired since they first appeared in the 1930s as single-panel cartoons in The New Yorker. In a new Broadway version of The Addams Family at Musical Theatre Southwest’s Center for Theatre (6320-B Domingo NE), daughter Wednesday begs her oddball clan for just “One Normal Night” so she can invite her suburban guy-next-door sweetie and his parents over for dinner. A hilarious campaign for normality ensues for two acts and two hours. When the vanilla Beinekes show up for their petting-zoo repast at the Addams mansion—situated in the middle of Central Park—the collision of cultures compels viewers to, as Grandma Addams suggests, “define normal.”
On the surface this lighthearted musical comedy, which has been criticized in tougher markets for its banal storyline, would appear to lack dramatic depth. But the cast of 20 actors, singers and dancers in MTS’s staging, along with director David Bryant’s carefully executed production concept, achieves a show-tune miracle by inspiring audiences to question, deeply, the notion of conformity.
“You root for them for the most part,” says Bryant, who’s making his community theater directorial debut. “It’s definitely a different definition of normalcy.”
The dramatic juxtaposition of the Addamses and the Beinekes reveals that, especially in this new age of evolving familial values, odd is not so different. From the beginning, it’s the Addams’ dysfunctionality—a father who hates lying as much as telling the truth, a big sister whose best show of enthusiasm is a slightly shallower frown, a grandmother peddling peyote to her grandchildren—that makes them readily accessible. The characters are firmly in the 21st century now, with Grandma smoking weed in the attic and children texting instead of reading books. Some light profanity bombs, which Bryant was careful not to censor, put them even closer.
“Because the family is so abnormal, and they’re okay with it, I think it has a neat message about just accepting others for their differences and uniqueness, regardless of what that may be,” Bryant says.
Embodying this touching deviance required more development and research than meets the eye.
“For me, this is probably the most challenging role because it’s so iconic,” says Lisette Herrera, who plays Morticia and is still memorable for her portrayal of Lina Lamont in Albuquerque Little Theatre’s 2012 Singin’ in the Rain. “And so to live up to an expectation of what Morticia is supposed to talk like, walk like, look like, be like, act like, but then do it in a musical form, is pretty tough.”
“In a musical such as this, where the characters border on caricature, it’s essential to do a deep character study because you have to still make them real,” says Beth Elliot, who plays Grandma with side-splitting acumen. “You have to give them heart and soul, and it’s so easy just to flip into cartoonish mode. If you do that, then nobody cares.”
The cast fraternized outside of rehearsal through social media, which Bryant says was important for working well as a family on stage. This warm rapport extends to a hallmark MTS chorus of Addams ancestors—living, dead and undecided—consisting of a caveman, pilgrim, flight attendant and a handful of other colorful kin.
“It’s established a lot of cohesiveness that I’ve never done with another cast, and it’s sort of built our bond a little bit stronger,” says Chris Armijo.
The intimate confines of MTS’s black box put the audience right in the action. Bryant has used the available space to maximum effect (even if some of the scene changes are overdone and time-consuming). Turning out the musical-theater event of the season with a twistless script and a funny yet unremarkable pop score speaks directly to the ensemble’s strong performances. Robert Johnson, who’s made Albuquerque audiences laugh for 25 years, does a glowing Fester. Choreographer Shirley Roach, whose signature dance lifts put her stamp on the production, adds her expressive magic to the chorus and makes it a challenge to look elsewhere, even with homegrown heartthrob Leon Garcia doing the “rigor mortis” as a Victorian relative right next to her.
Like the song says, “When you’re an Addams (snap snap), you have to put some poison in your day.”