Our Little Theatre of Norfolk ended their 89th season on a high note: The Addams Family Musical is a treat indeed.
By Matt Downey
With a score by Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party, Big Fish) and book by Marshall Brickman (known for his collaborations with Woody Allen) and Rick Elice (Peter and the Starcatcher), Charles Addams’ classically macabre family comes to life on stage for an evening of laughs. The original Broadway run in 2010-’11 featured a star-studded cast and saw phenomenal ticket sales, but its weak storyline drew mixed to harsh reviews. A rewritten project saw a successful national tour, and has been very popular in community theatres nationwide. In fact, this is the second time Tidewater has seen this play, with Smithfield Little Theatre mounting a production in 2014. Noting some differences between the original cast recording and the performance I saw, I am confident it was the retooled script being produced.
Travis Malone of Virginia Wesleyan College directs the production and has done an excellent job in capturing The Family’s iconic look with his casting, and in leading a strong team of actors into a very polished performance. I will note again, the script is simple, as Malone notes in the program “part You Cant Take It With You” (Wednesday Addams has met a boy and she invites his family to dinner. Musical ensues). The score is lighthearted and fun, and the overall vocal performances are well done for the most part. But this isn’t a culturally defining musical; it is a fun evening, and I am thrilled to see Malone’s casting of strong actors over strong singers. While a note may be missed or a vocal weak, the comedic timing and brisk pace of the show is never lost, and I will take that over mind-blowing vocals any day.
Leading the clan as the patriarch Gomez is Clifford Hoffman, who captures the image and mannerisms perfectly, though his accent does seem to fade in and out at times. Avery Malerich and Missy Sullivan both do a fantastic job with Uncle Fester and Grandma, respectively, with absolutely perfect comedic timing for both. Malerich’s number “The Moon and Me” was one of the most gratuitously fun moments I have ever had in the Hampton Roads Theatre scene.
The ensemble comprises ancestral ghosts from various periods of history. As it is so easy to treat an ensemble as an afterthought, I loved the attention to detail in their costuming and characterization as it speaks to the production as a whole. Everyone seemed to play a part, and there was a tangible unity among the cast on-stage. I’ve seen professional work that lacked this cohesiveness, and that is what ultimately sells this production.
There are two standouts for the family, and the first is Judy Triska as Morticia. Rather then simply copying one of the original TV or film actresses, I could see her own additions and interpretations, making the character at once familiar and new. Her walk and facial expressions sold it – a very enjoyable performance. Nearly stealing the spotlight however is the Addams son Pugsley, played by Lilly Easter. Her characterization of Pugsley was spot on and her voice is strong and commanding. I look forward to seeing this young lady do more in our community theatre.
Wednesday Addams is played by Rye Fey, who does well bringing a very deadpan character to life. However, her vocals were subpar. With a character as stoic as Wednesday, a soaring belt for her solos is necessary to keep the performance from becoming static. I found myself rooting for her, as she is a very strong actress, and when I could feel a belt note coming I could see her tense up, robbing her voice of its full potential. I do hope we see more of this young woman, and I hope she continues to pursue and perfect this craft. More so, I hope she trusts herself and her voice and just goes for it.
It is from within the visiting boyfriend’s family that the real show stopping performance comes. Michelle Jenkins plays Alice, the boyfriend’s mother, and single-handedly owns every scene she is in without upstaging her costars. Her number “Waiting” was a perfect capstone to Act One and the performance highlight of the show, but also her character shift from bubbly naivety to biting sarcasm was delightful. Excellent job.
Behind the scenes, it is the costuming that is the technical highlight of the show, primarily as seen in the ensemble and their individual time periods. The look of each character, lead or supporting, is captured with precision, which ultimately sells each scene. Hair and wigs are perfect to the point I couldn’t tell who was wigged and who was not, and the makeup is on point without being clownish. The attention to detail is spot-on with the look any fan of The Addams Family would hope for, with new characters blending into the story with ease. Hats off to Meg Murray and her team for their cohesive and stunning work.
Jason Martens has designed a strong and workable set, and Graham Wilson shows it off perfectly through his lighting, their work pairing together with a graceful gloom. The exterior of the home sets the mood for the show, but it was in the smaller moments that the design really stood out. More intimate scenes are set by a single set piece denoting a different room, but their skewed angles give it a disquieting funhouse feel. The remaining open spaces are held in shadow, and even in the well-lit full ensemble numbers, there seemed to be an ever present sense of darkness and shadow that was creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky. Also of note, 10 out of 10 for scene changes! They are crisp, precise, and never once pulling the audience out of the story and back into reality. Stage Manager Jenifer Wylie runs an excellent and well-oiled machine, brava!
Sound Design is done by John C. Roberts, and while all sound effects were executed perfectly, I found myself holding issue with the music. All of the orchestration is pre-recorded. As both an actor and audience member, I am not the biggest fan of this but understand it is sometimes necessary due to large sets or limited space. It is the handling of the sound that will make or break the show, and on my night it broke it. The volume levels seemed to fluctuate, at times overpowered the actors, and more than once threw off the timing for some of the numbers. This really is an enjoyable performance, and I wanted to hear every word and stay engaged, but the glaring sound issues pulled me out of the story on more than one occasion.
Choreography and staging are finely tuned. Karen Buchheims best work is in “Tango De Amore” towards the finale, with special congratulations to Hoffman and Triska. Some earlier numbers seemed a little simplistic at first, but over the course of the evening this could be seen as more stylized. And the ensemble moves through each of their numbers with precision, very well done. I will note my one moment of objection came with an ensemble staging. While taunting the boyfriend in one scene, the male ancestors strike several tableaus. This was a funny bit until their last pose, where they recreated a comical image of the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima. For the next few moments I was completely sick to my stomach as I thought of our service members lost, and frankly I was so bothered by this staging I don’t remember the rest of the scene. Given the military presence in our community and the timing of the run with Memorial Day (when we remember and honor our fallen), I found this choice to be in bad form. I trust that it was meant out of a spirit of fun, but it came across as disrespectful.
Sometimes we need theatre that shakes us up and makes us think. But equally important is the gift to relax and enjoy an evening of audacity. The humor of The Addams was often lost on me when I was younger, but just before curtain opened, I read Malone’s note in the program, and I am so glad I did. Citing cultural critics, he asserts that “the Addams family members were an inverted representation of Depression Era America. Their outward appearance was representative of the internal angst and pain felt by Americans. The Addams Family allowed readers the opportunity to “embrace their darkness” and find humor and solace in an uncertain modern world.” And that is exactly what this performance provides, a lighthearted and fun reminder to “live before we die.” If that was Charles Addams’ intention, then the Little Theatre of Norfolk has done a near perfect job of capturing this spirit.
Be on the lookout for their 90th season, and if you missed The Addams Family, keep your eyes open for the production team’s next work.
“The Addams Family” runs through June 19 at the Little Theatre of Norfolk, Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm, Sunday at 2:30pm. Tix $18 regular, Student/Seniors/Military $15, 17 and under $9. Group rates also available. Call (757) 627-8551 or surf on over ltnonline.org for reservations.