All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Jeffrey Coon and Jennie Eisenhower ace their roles as Gomez and Morticia Addams in Dann Dunn’s production of “The Addams Family” for Media Theatre because they each have the good sense to play eccentricity as an integral trait of their characters and not as a set of quirks or tics that smack of hammy exaggeration and force, rather than earn or invite, laughs.
Coon exudes suave urbanity as Gomez. The light Spanish accent he affects adds a touch of the exotic to his portrayal of the Addams patriarch as a romantic charmer with an old-world flare. Gomez’s predilection for brandishing rapiers comes across as the genteel pastime of one who relishes the chivalry of an earlier day. His penchant for collecting instruments of torture from the Spanish Inquisition, such the beautifully carved chair that can disembowel an adversary with one touch of a lever, demonstrates a connoisseur’s insistence on completeness and authenticity.
Everything Coon does is in character. His Gomez is not so much weird as idiosyncratic. Within the context of his world, the Addams manse, which he rarely leaves, he is a paragon of taste who shows ardor for his wife and devotion to his children. At home, Gomez’s oddities are conventions, and Coon cunningly plays them as such.
Jennie Eisenhower is no less canny. Wearing Morticia’s signature black dress, the bodice of which, costume designer Xiachen Zhou, taking a cue from “The Addams Family” script, cut down to Venezuela, Eisenhower combines the sexiness of Jane Fonda and the maternal reliability of Donna Reed.
Eisenhower’s sultry, languid readings create a character. Her pouts when Morticia feels neglected or betrayed are the genuine reaction of a woman who believes her family is deceiving her and is hurt by the prospect.
Coon acts with dash, Eisenhower with a subtlety that makes Morticia accessible and sympathetic. Behind Morticia’s morose pleasure in the sad and melancholy is a woman of deep sentiment who wants to be lauded as a wife and mother and becomes upset, as many a woman would, when she is disappointed by her family.
Eisenhower finds the conventional in Morticia while displaying the character’s allure and uniquely maudlin nature. Her portrayal helps Dunn in realizing some of the stickier parts of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book for “The Addams Family” musical. The domestic dust-up between Morticia and Gomez, with Wednesday as instigator, usually plays as a flimsy subplot to the show’s main fish-out-of-water story, with Wednesday’s Midwestern fiancé and his Babbitty Ohio family as the flounder, but Eisenhower endows Morticia with such genuine pathos, the device has some intensity that gives the musical more texture.
Morticia, although considered the female lead of “The Addams Family,” never registered as an important or even mildly interesting character in the Broadway or touring production of the show. Eisenhower changes that perception. Her Morticia makes an indelible mark that informs and adds to the show.
Coon and Eisenhower are not the only ones among Dunn’s unanimously adroit cast that let the comedy flow naturally from their macabre characters rather than overemphasizing oddity or strangeness. Lauren Cupples, as Wednesday, and J.D. Triolo, as Pugsley, are also deft in the way they establish individual ‘normality’ while being altogether ooky. Cupples entertains grandly with her big belt voice that expresses all Wednesday might otherwise hold inside. Triolo finds the perfect note of regret as Pugsley wonders who is going to be his playmate and subject him to torture after Wednesday leaves to set up a house of her own.
Even Bill Vargus, in a stylized performance, economically limits Lurch’s ghoulish repertoire to a glacially slow stiff-legged walk and some unintelligible but expressive grunts that make the character funny without overdoing shtick or going too far over the top. Vargus’s deliciously disciplined deadpan makes it all the more amusing during the rare moments when Lurch rolls his eyes or shakes his head to show disapproval or outright contempt.
“The Addams Family” is such a familiar piece, and beloved by many for various reasons, Brickman, Elice, and composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa took on a gigantic challenge when they undertook placing Charles Addams’s cartoon family in a musical.
“The Addams Family” received mixed reviews when it opened on Broadway, but I’ve always enjoyed it as a mild, well-crafted entertainment that reacquainted me with characters I enjoyed watching on television and in a series of movies.
The touring production that came through Philadelphia in 2013 and Wilmington in 2014 was the most successful rendition of the show. Brickman and Elice simplified and clarified the story, especially the domestic dilemma that gnaws at Morticia, and all aspects of the musical played like clockwork.
Dann Dunn’s production of “The Addams Family” for the Media also deserves high praise. Coon, Eisenhower, Cupples, and Triolo, even Triolo at age 12, are consummate artists, but Dunn, as director guided them deftly to playing the Addamses as straight and as sincerely as possible by making character traits seem comme il faut instead of self-consciously outlandish.
Dunn also does a remarkable job as a choreographer. His opening dances for the living Addamses and their ancestors from various periods are witty and evocative. They set a tone for comedy while showing the class and quality the production maintains throughout its duration. A tango for Morticia, and a wonderful bit for Kristine Fraelich as Wednesday’s prospective mother-in-law are treats on several levels, especially knowing that Jennie Eisenhower incurred a concussion after being hit, as a pedestrian, by a car nine days before opening night and still managed most of the gyrations and moves Dunn devised for her.
In general, Dunn’s production is lively and contains many sequences that cause theatrical sparks to fly. Triolo’s reacting to Wednesday stretching him on a rack, Fraelich’s bravura production number, Susan Wefel hilarious explanation of Grandmama’s potions, Coon’s various parlays with Wednesday’s in-laws to be, and Eisenhower’s glamorous but homebodyish take on Morticia are all delicacies to savor.
The only difficulty is in some book scenes that bog down the action, particular passages in which the in-laws confer among each other.
Blessedly, such lapses are short and infrequent. For the most part, Dunn’s production finds the fun in “The Addams Family” and is a satisfying entertainment with several instances that go beyond amusing to rousing and exciting.
The pivotal plot for a musical about the Addams family cannot be too difficult to guess. Wednesday, enjoying one of her routine pleasures, is shooting her crossbow in Central Park one day when she nearly hits a young man who gets a rush from the adventure of nearly being hit by a random arrow.
This impresses the hard-to-please ingénue, and after further conversation and a few dates, the pair decides to marry.
This is the fish-out-of-water plot to which I referred earlier. Wednesday’s betrothed, Lucas Beineke, comes from a staid Ohio family that regards New York City as daunting enough without the Addamses tipping the scales in a totally frightening direction.
Wednesday and Lucas determine their families must meet, and Wednesday, with the usual warnings to her family to behave ‘normally,’ which prompts Morticia to ask what ‘normal’ is, invites her future family to dinner with very little notice. The precaution is for Lucas’s parents. Lucas has already been speared.
In the weak subplot Eisenhower makes stronger, Morticia is miffed because Wednesday tells Gomez of the engagement but doesn’t trust her to be able to handle the news without asking a barrage of questions. Morticia, feeling betrayed, resents her daughter and husband, particularly Gomez, for keeping her out of the loop, and goes into a tizzy of tantrums, snits, and hissy fits (rhyme and scan intended) over it.
In essence, the guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner plot would be enough.
For one thing, the Beinekes are not much more bizarre than the Addamses. They should look more ordinary and are more typically dysfunctional. The Addamses are content in their eccentric milieu. The Beinekes are plain old neurotic folks who tolerate each other’s peccadilloes for old-time sake and don’t show nearly the affection or romance the Addamses do.
Naturally, the Beinekes view themselves as the pillars of convention, and their reaction to the Addams clan is supposed to be the major source of comedy.
Brickman and Elice, though a little tedious with Morticia’s ire about Gomez’s withholding a secret from her, also makes the Addamses’ assessment of the Beineke’s part of the joke.
All goes along divertingly, as the clashing families evaluate and alienate each other. You stay involved with Wednesday’s dilemma and its resolution because Dunn is adept at keeping the pace moving, and Lippa provides enough musical numbers to keep things animated. A chorus portraying ghostly, white-clad Addams ancestors, helps in this regard. Media regulars Patrick Ludt, Megan Rucidlo, and J.P. Dunphy are among the ensemble.
Lippa’s score is bright and versatile.
The composer begins his overture by including a few bars of the well-known theme from “The Addams Family” TV show, snaps and all, but he proceeds to a high-energy selection of tunes and production numbers that give the cast, particularly Cupples and Fraelich the chance to shine, and Dunn the opportunity to create some engaging dances.
The show starts on a fast note as Gomez introduces his family, and the ancestors emerge from their crypt to let the audience know what happens “When You’re an Addams.”
Cupples and Triolo are winning in “Pulled,” in which Wednesday talks about her love for her mother while declaring how she prefers to present her imminent marriage as a fait d’accompli, punctuating her bout of confusion by treating Pugsley to a satisfying cruel session on the rack. Cupples, as she does throughout the production, delivers the song with style and verve, her expressive full voice becoming thrilling in belt mode. Triolo screams in painful delight each time Wednesday pulls the lever that activates the rack. He follows up his regret at Wednesday’s leaving home with a funny number, “What If…”
One of the highlights of any production of “The Addams Family” is a number called “Full Disclosure,” during which the Addamses and their guests drink a truth potion from a chalice, and reveal their most cherished or darkest secrets. Uncle Fester, for example, admits he is in love with the moon. Grandmama says she wants to live to 102.
Morticia insists on playing “Full Disclosure” to catch Gomez or Wednesday in what she regards as their treachery towards her. Those two avoid her scrutiny, but the chalice Morticia gives to Wednesday is graciously passed to her soon-to-be mother-in-law who, in addition to Morticia’s truth potion, will be influenced by a concoction of Grandmama’s Pugsley steals and adds to the drink, thinking, like Morticia, it is heading towards Wednesday.
This gives Kristine Fraelich as Alice Beineke a chance to stop the show cold.
She does an unabashed number called “Waiting” that pulls out every stop as Alice reveals her libidinous side that longs for her husband, or some more sensuous man, to respond to her need to be a woman Susan Hayward might play.
Fraelich does not miss her opportunity. She unleashes energy and ardor that has her dancing on the table and rolling under it.
Eisenhower, concussion and all, is marvelous in leading “Just Around the Corner.” Nicholas Savarine, as Uncle Fester, is whimsically sweet in the lilting ballad, “The Moon and Me.” Cupples leads a quartet in “Crazier Than You,” in which Jake Glassman, as Lucas Beineke, offers to prove his love to Wednesday by facing her crossbow with an apple on his head. (He shouldn’t hold the apple in place with a cupped hand. It might get skewered.) Coon is magnificent in all of Gomez’s numbers.
Fun is the ultimate result of Dunn’s production. The few dry patches don’t matter at all compared to entertainment Coon, Eisenhower, and company provide with Gomez-like brio.
Nicholas Savarine brings out the happy side of Fester. Susan Wefel is giddily madcap as Grandmama. Paul Weagraff plays exasperation well as the dubious, put-upon Mal Beineke, Lucas’s father who has to cope with his astonishment at the Addams home, the plans of his son, and the outburst of his wife. Jake Glassman’s Lucas seems a worthy beau to Lauren Cupple’s excellently played Wednesday.
Matthew Miller’s set includes the arch built for the Media’s spring production of “Sunset Boulevard.” It serves well to frame the Addamses’ antics. Interiors, represented by decorated flats, don’t seem to measure up to the Addamses’ standards, although swagged drapes that look like peek-a-boo masks are clever (and would be cleverer if they were part of a more interesting, less tacky wall).
Xiachen Zhou’s costumes were on-target, especially Gomez’s smoking jacket and formal wear, and Morticia’s elegant and revealing dress. (Remember Venezuela.)
The Media band, under the director of Christopher Ertelt, sounded wonderful. Andrew Rubin plays Pugsley for daytime performances.
“The Addams Family” runs through Sunday, November 2 at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, in Media, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $42 with discounts available for students and seniors. They can be obtained by calling 610-891-0100 or by visiting www.mediatheatre.org.