Tibbits’ “Addams Family” musical is altogether “ooky” good
COLDWATER, Mich.–Sometimes a new musical doesn’t need a fresh plot line or original characters to be witty, entertaining and on-point. And sometimes borrowing from the screen can transform classic television lore into something that pays tribute to the icons of an older generation while corralling a new one.
The Addams Family: A New Musical is a comedy that succeeds in doing all this. Being performed by Tibbits Summer Theatre, The Addams Family trots out such iconic characters as the Spanish rapier-wielding Gomez (Joey Gugliemelli), the raven-haired beauty Morticia (Maureen Duke), the original emo goth girl Wednesday (Jennifer Barnaba), the pain and torture obsessed Pugsley (William Thomason), the balding and kooky Uncle Fester (R J Magee), the slightly demented Grandma (Donna Schulte) and the imposing and mostly silent butler Lurch (Mitch Voss).
They’re all characters anyone who was a fan of the show would recognize and the musical plays them to the type. It also borrows a plot from “You Can’t Take It With You,” the classic 1936 play in which a girl with a strange family invites her boyfriend’s “normal” family over for dinner so they can announce their engagement. The Addams Family follows the same plot line, with Wednesday having fallen in love with Lucas (Ben Shimkus). He brings his Ohio parents, Mal (Peter Riopelle) and Alice (Suzanne Marie Ogden), to meet the Adams family clan in their New York mansion and somehow secure everyone’s blessing.
This recycling doesn’t really hurt the show any. After all, they chose good material to work with and mined it for the best possibilities. They make sure to provide enough background for the new generation who might be unfamiliar with the creepy and kooky Addams family of yore without falling into dull exposition.
The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, are witty and clever. Some of the lines may not age well as they refer to modern events such as people not being able to get health care and the feeling of being trapped that moderate Republicans must experience. But both writers and lyricist provide plenty of laugh lines that are always earned.
Director Charles Burr knows his space well and it shows in his blocking. He makes use of the depth of the stage and orchestrates wonderful back and forth chase scenes that make every move motivated. He also cast the show well. The actors aren’t exact lookalikes of the characters as they were portrayed in the television show, but they’re close—close enough to sell the shtick and make it an effective call-out to the original players.
The Tibbits Opera House, a 500-seat theater, was built in 1882, long before microphones were a common thing. They have some of the best acoustics that can be found state-wide and they are one of the few places where performers in a musical sing without amplification. All of the singers project well and there is a richness in their voices that is uncompromised by electronic interference.
It is also clear that Tibbits Summer Theatre knows how to recruit dancers as well as singers and actors. This is a dance-heavy show and Choreographer Dougie Robbins creates dances that are rich in storytelling and humor. A highlight is the tango between Gomez and Morticia late in the show that lays bare their reconciliation in a more compelling and passionate manner than mere words could do. Robbins also makes wonderful use of the nine-person ensemble of dead ancestors. It helps that they are garbed in white with pale zombie-like makeup painted on their faces. They provide a stark contrast to the black wardrobe the family wears and the somber colors of the mansion. When they start to dance, they become living set pieces that make the main characters pop. Many of them also get their own special dance moves, with high kicks demonstrating their flexibility.
Gugliemelli enthusiastically portrays Gomez as the Spanish lover whose passions range from tango to torture, but is most defined by devotion to his family, in particular his wife and his daughter. Gugliemelli plays up the kookiness of the family’s patriarch while also giving him moments of tenderness and wisdom. He’s delightful to watch and easily wins the audience’s sympathy as he gets pulled between the two inexorable forces of his wife and daughter.
Duke brought a sternness to Morticia’s elegance and power. She especially excelled in her Tango de Amor with Gomez. Barnaba’s Wednesday edged out her mother as the lead actress and she was a quirky young woman who is powerful and knows exactly what she wanted. Barnaba aptly shows the internal contradictions the quintessential Goth girl is experiencing as she finds herself in love. While she does a wonderful job of revealing this inner conflict in her performance of the duet “Pulled” (performed with Thomason), where she really excels is in her high-spirited and energetic duet with her would-be fiancé, Shimkus, in “Crazier Than You.”
Magee’s Fester is also a runaway role and he slips into the part of narrator and chief meddler with ease. He breaks the fourth wall to give commentary on the musical, directs the actions of the ancestor, and reveals his own quirky goals and personality. Voss is entertaining as the mush-mouthed butler who speaks his own strange dialect that is incomprehensible to most. He’s especially entertaining when his employers implore him to act with speed.
Husband and wife team Riopelle and Ogden take an amusing turn as the “normal” folks, Midwesterners who are conservative and everything that the Addams are not. Yet, they subtly reveal their own quirks, starting with Alice’s tendency to talk in rhymes, which Ogden does with Seuss-like recitations. Meanwhile Riopelle holds his own as the play’s only straight man, sticking out precisely because he is so unremarkable.
Tibbits holds nothing back when it comes to the production values of this show. There are numerous set pieces that fly in and out with ease, creating multiple rooms, interiors and exteriors. Oft-times the ensemble helps create spaces by holding tree branches or empty frames that they inhabit. Daniel Thobias’ set design is effective and immediately communicates the spooky nature of this death-obsessed family.
Costume Designer Tyler Arnold draws on the iconic looks of the television characters with costumes that are layered for on-stage reveals and quick changes. Stark contrasts in color—whether between New Yorkers and Ohioans or the living and the dead—define the roles that each character played and provided for several sight gags. The wigs and makeup also contributed mightily to the overall atmosphere and the storytelling.
The Addams Family: A New Musical is a fun show for all ages—even if it does have a few moments that are PG-13. It’s filled with humor, clever and done with attention to the smallest detail, whether acting or technical.