Michael L. Quintos
I can't remember who exactly told me—and whether any of it is even true or not—but, apparently, the historic Louis E. Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton, California, is said to be haunted. Rumor has it that this grand, old mission-style theater built back in 1930, remains the supposed home of the ghost of its long-passed namesake, who has been reported to make occasional "appearances" to many a spooked employee around this pumpkin-spiced time of year.
Well ol' "Louie" should feel pretty great right now considering a few more ghouls and ghosts—very funny ones, I might add—have joined him at his old stomping grounds.
See, for a few years now, this historical landmark has been the home of 3-D Theatricals, one of Orange County's award-winning, Broadway-caliber regional theater companies. It's current production—timed perfectly for the month of Halloween and Louie's materializations—is none other than THE ADDAMS FAMILY, the witty and hilarious Broadway musical comedy based on the 1938 cartoon comics series published in The New Yorker by Charles Addams which, of course, was later adapted into a popular television sitcom of the same name, followed by another series of theatrically-released feature films in the 90's. These faux-ghosts, directed with big-budget, high-spirited, comedic panache by 3DT co-founder T.J. Dawson, will keep Mr. Plummer company at his theater through October 25 before they relocate to haunt the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center on Halloween (up until November 8).
And in quite an eye-opening casting coup, 3DT's impressive regional production features TV's Bronson Pinchot (best known for his TGIF sitcom Perfect Strangers) as Gomez Addams and musical theater power-belter extraordinaire Rachel York as his statuesque wife Morticia. Together with an ensemble filled with incredible, awesome-voiced singers blessed with undeniable comic timing, this highly-entertaining 3DT production pretty much deserves every chuckle, loud cackle, and hysterical yelp it gets all throughout the show.
Filled with gleeful, cheese-tastic one-liners and catchy, cleverly written tunes from Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party, Big Fish), this seemingly underrated stage musical gem is a lively, highly-amusing little comedy that celebrates individual uniqueness while poking lots of giddy fun at fragile family dynamics, pointing out that even the most creepy, kooky, mysterious, and spooky beings among us face the same kinds of OMG-drama that so-called "normals" do.
In this particular case—using a relatively simple story-line devised by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice that feels as if it could just as easily been a lost episode of the sitcom or even the plot of another feature film reboot—the dilemma that rocks the macabre status quo this time around involves Addams patriarch Gomez feeling extremely guilty about being compelled to lie for the first time to his wife Morticia.
And what exactly is this grievous lie? Well, Gomez has promised to keep a huge secret that his daughter Wednesday (the stellar Micaela Martinez) has shared with him: that she, Wednesday, has fallen madly in love with a—yikes—"normal" guy... a young man from Ohio named Lucas Beineke (Dino Nicandros), whom she plans to marry. Fearful of her mother's disappointment and subsequent disapproval about dating a hipster in a hoodie, angsty Wednesday pleads with her dad to keep hush on the secret until she's ready to tell. This naturally troubles Gomez and makes Morticia suspicious.
Eventually, though, the two engaged lovebirds from oh-so-disparate sides of the tracks—who, funny enough, both separately feel a bit embarrassed by their own respective sets of eccentric parents—cautiously decide to test the choppy waters of their pending nuptials by—gulp—introducing each other's parents to one another during a spur-of-the-moment dinner party to be held at the eerie, well-hidden Addams estate.
For Lucas, his wish for the night is for his uptight, middle-America-raised parents Mal (Robert Yacko) and Alice (the incredible Tracy Rowe Mutz) to be much more open-minded and not so judgmental once they meet their future in-laws. For Wednesday, her wish is simply for her odd extended family—which includes bald big-kid Uncle Fester (adorkable Anthony Grupposo); feisty, potion-mixing Grandma (frequent scene-stealer Candi Milo); her little trouble-making brother Pugsley (Dante Marenco); and even Lurch (the superb Dustin Ceithamer), the family's zombie butler—to appear, well, as normal as remotely possibe and, um, less... altogether ooky.
Well, it's pretty hard not to predict that things do not go very smoothly. Such a heightened culture clash—further stoked by a favorite Addams tradition of playing their "Full Disclosure" game—ensures that there's plenty of room for a few unplanned high-jinks, a few improvised half-truths, and lots and lots of very funny, awkward interactions.
This perfect storm of over-the-top hilarious theatrics, a relatable storyline that blends silliness and heart, and lots of sight gags and jokes is exactly what makes THE ADDAMS FAMILY such an enjoyable show. While, sure, it's not BOOK OF MORMON-funny, it does pull off something rather extraordinary: the show manages to make something very retro feel very hip while still providing laughs equally across all ages. The scares here aren't scary in the traditional sense but rather more tongue-in-cheek in keeping with the absurdist comedy of its source material.
Oddly enough, though this stage adaptation claims to be much more directly inspired by Addams' original single-panel cartoons rather than the popular TV series, you can't help but notice how married this stage show is to its sitcom roots as well. And although we only get very tiny cameos from "Cousin Itt" and "Thing" and just a snippet of the ubiquitous TV theme song incorporated into the score (strictly for audience-rousing, nostalgic purposes, I presume), this musical overall feels very much structured like a traditional sitcom—from its multitude of snappy line readings to the way scenes and plot points are set-up.
It's actually a very savvy, smart move, which I first experienced for the first time back in 2012 when the musical's extensively revised first national tour first scared up laughs in L.A. via the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, and then months later again at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, where the tour played its final set of performances ever. It was reported that the North American national tour iteration was a heavily reworked and edited show from how it previously existed during its original 2010 Broadway run, which involved revising the main conflict/plot, re-ordering story points, adding new orchestrations and dance numbers, and removing/adding songs to the line-up.
Well, if this was indeed the case, then bravo to all responsible for making these edits. The resulting show—which is also the version that 3DT is thankfully presenting here in Southern California—is a frightfully fun and cheeky laugh-riot. And in this regional production, director Dawson wisely retains the show's sitcom-esque spirit alive but unlike the previous tour, he utilizes the ensemble cast (seen mostly as the powder-white ghostly ancestors) much more frequently and visibly to great effect. Acting like observant, omniscient spirits haunting almost every scene, these hovering, visiting ghosts add subtle little comedic moments that elicit extra laughs while reiterating the fact that they are temporarily "trapped" in our world (well, at least for the duration of the show).
And as expected, 3DT's top-notch regional staging of THE ADDAMS FAMILY is a visual and technical marvel as well. Mixing a macabre color palette with fun theme-park hues, it's a wonderfully eye-popping production featuring ornate sets and costumes by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott that looked as if they were dug out directly from the Broadway production's storage lockers. Also worth praising is Dana Solimando's high-energy movements and choreography, Jean-Yves Tessier's spooky lighting, Julie Ferrin's sound effects, Denice Paxton's chilling make-up designs, and Corey B. Hirsch's musical direction. While I still feel the orchestra gets a bit muzzled in the pit, the rousing orchestrations by Larry Hochman seem to permeate much more jubilantly here than in other shows (hmmm... did Louie have something to do with that, perhaps?).
Of course, this particular kind of musical comedy wouldn't be as funny as it is if the cast tasked with possessing these roles wasn't up to par with the production. Thankfully, 3DT has assembled an exceptional bunch of actors to play off each other, as if these folks—everyone from the marquee talent to the company member with the smallest role—have been shooting this comedy show for multiple seasons.
As Gomez, Pinchot turns in a delightful, skillfully funny performance that's less about his singing prowess and more about what a brilliant comedic actor he truly is. It's hard to deny that his film-and-television background meshes really well with this musical's sitcom-esque leanings. And, man, that over-done accent, particularly when pronouncing long Latin-flavored names, is a recurring highlight!
He's incredibly lucky, though, to be paired with the amazing, awe-inspiring legit talent that is Rachel York, who slinks so effortlessly into the role of the deliciously devilish diva Morticia here. Whether dancing a sexy tango, delivering an engrossingly enunciated line, or belting the heck out of a stratospheric high note, this enthralling musical theater genius is worth the price of a ticket alone (excuse me while this critic fangirls a bit).
Yet, while Pinchot and York are certainly featured (and deservedly so) as this buoyant production's marquee stars, it's worth noting that they are equally matched and supported by a stellar group of finely-voiced—and totally hilarious—fellow ensemble cast-mates that keep things appropriately entertaining. As Wednesday, Martinez proves herself to be an impressive vocalist while providing equal amounts of dark humor, controlled rage, and surprising vulnerability. Milo's enjoyably spunky Grandma is a welcome presence every time she steps in with a witty line or—ha!—a little blue humor and even some poignant wisdom. Just as goofy and over-the-top is Gruppuso's uproarious take on Uncle Fester, who basically stops the show in the second act during a gravity-defying pas de deux with, um, a celestial body he fancies (you just have to see it—trust me, it's comedy gold).
The super-tall, super-funny Ceithamer is featured as the Addams' hilariously undead butler Lurch, who remarkably speaks volumes with just his subtle mannerisms and funny nonsensical grunts. For a guy without a voice, he seems the most hyper-aware of everything. Another neat surprise is Marenco, who at such a young age already displays great artistic and comic instincts in his approach to Pugsley Addams. His solo vocals also reveal a pleasing singing voice that will mature nicely into a long future in musical theater.
Yacko and Nicandros are also both quite excellent as the "normal" Beineke men, but their characters do get trampled a bit into the periphery by the awesomely brassy women that their characters are in love with respectively. They both, however, provide an intriguing contrast within scene-stealing scenes featuring rhyming mama Beineke, played with energetic, unabashed gusto by Ms. Mutz. Whether nervously reciting a rhyme scheme or being uninhibited thanks to lots of liquid courage, Mutz's full-bodied performance is really thrown into the role and the audience responds with heaping praise. And her singing voice—wow, this dame has some serious pipes!
So if the Plummer Auditorium is indeed haunted by the ghost of Louie, I imagine he's having a grand time taking in this gut-busting musical comedy just as much as the living, breathing patrons laughing it up in their seats. Well, no wonder... Overall, 3DT's exemplary production of THE ADDAMS FAMILY—featuring Broadway-caliber production values, incredible musical theater talent, and a witty, surprisingly family-friendly storyline that celebrates finding what makes each of us unique—is the joyful, silly antidote to blood-gushing frights that normally populate entertainment this time of year.
I don't know much about him, but I'm betting Louie would approve of this, too.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos of 3-D Theatricals' presentation of THE ADDAMS FAMILY by Isaac James Creative. Review originally published in OnStage.
Performances of 3-D Theatricals' THE ADDAMS FAMILY - The Musical continue at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton through October 25, 2015, then moves to the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center for a limited engagement October 31 – November 8, 2015. For tickets or more information, call 714-589-2770 or visit www.3DTshows.com.