Jewish creative team possesses spooky good production of ‘The Addams Family’ from JPAS
By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
The macabre characters created by cartoonist Charles Addams were anything but Jewish, which is why it may be interesting to musical theatre lovers that the creative team behind “The Addams Family” is not merely Jewish, but very Jewish. Describing his early Jewish upbringing in Toronto, composer and lyricist Andrew Lippa has commented that it, along with his being gay and left-handed, contributed to his feeling of being different.
Bookwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice – both Jewish – penned the successful script for “Jersey Boys” prior to tackling “The Addams Family.” Of the two, Elice was probably the most observant, insisting that his husband, the late actor Roger Rees, convert to Judaism.
This successful pairing of Jewish musical theatre creatives continues a long-held tradition that is parodied in “Monty Python’s ‘Spamalot,’” with the song “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” (if you don’t have any Jews).
Currently playing at East Jefferson High School and presented by the Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS), “The Addams Family” musical is directed by Leslie Castay, a noted former Broadway performer and local cabaret star and actor.
Originally intended to be staged at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center (JPAC) on Airline Drive in September, a change in venue for “The Addams Family” was required due to damage the facility suffered from winds caused by Hurricane Ida at the end of August.
Castay and the cast were two weeks into rehearsal when the storm shut down the production and sent the artistic director Dennis Assaf and executive director Timothy Todd Simmons scrambling for a new venue. Fortunately, JPAS’s former home for two decades at the high school was still available and, within a remarkably turnaround, the production team was able to make that change happen.
Castay, who had previously directed two “Mandatory Merriment” holiday-theme shows at Southern Rep, stepped up her game as a director with her brilliant casting of the delightful cast of characters – her biggest to date – in “The Addams Family.” Led by the remarkable and talented Enrico Cannella as Gomez Addams and the exquisitely lovely and amazing singer Kali Russell as his wife Morticia, this is a very big show with many moving parts, all of them energized by Lippa’s catchy music and funny lyrics.
Cannella, who has excited previous JPAS audiences with his powerful voice in roles like Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and Luther Billis in “South Pacific” oozes every bit the charm and bizarre behavior cartoonist Charles Addams drew into Gomez. He plays the comic foil beautifully against Russell’s striking figure of Morticia, who dominates the stage in a way few actors can.
The pair share their moments most notably in Act One’s “Trapped” and in a pair of numbers (“Live Before We Die” and “Tango de Amor”), which occur late in Act Two.
While Cannella and Russell are clearly the leading actors and the heart of the book by Brickman and Elice, the sub-plot of Wednesday Addams and Lucas Beineke’s unresolved love moves the action along throughout the musical. Played with conviction by Maddie Fry, Wednesday is well-paired with the character of Lucas portrayed by Markus McClain.
Jennifer DeLatte and Michael John Smith offer comedic counterpoint as Alice and Mal Beineke, Lucas’ strait-laced parents. Both couples have their relationships put into perspective in “Crazier Than You,” but it is DeLatte’s soaring soprano in “Waiting” where chills are truly felt near the end of a very long Act One.
Christopher Bentivegna’s return to the stage as an actor was some nine years in the making, but so worth it as his rendition of Uncle Fester is a comic masterpiece of superb timing. Even though his solo turn in “The Moon and Me” is marred slightly by some technical execution, it is Bentivegna’s commitment to staying thoroughly in character that sells this song and allows it to be among the most memorable and satisfying of this production’s numbers.
The smaller roles of Pugsley Addams (Bryson Morse) and Grandma (Janet Shea) occasionally shine through as in their duo of “What If.” It is a marvel to see a young actor taking his first main stage steps as he learns from the accomplished “First Lady of the New Orleans Stage,” who attacks her role with her typical fierceness. Through no fault of his own, Eric Lincoln is somewhat underutilized in this outing, although he does have an opportunity to showcase his talent in the closing number “Move Towards the Darkness.”
Camille von Hoven serves double duty in this production, having been tapped by Castay as choreographer for the various full cast numbers such as the opener “When You’re an Addams” and the bifurcated “Full Disclosure” that closes out Act One, but additionally serving as one of the Addams Ancestors. Her stage work with the other nine dancers and singers all clad in ghoulish costumes is the glue that keeps this production moving along.
Maestro Dennis Assaf conducts the Lippa score with his usual dexterity and confidence, but this time out with music director Michael Paternostro. Eric Porter continues to impress with this massive set as he continues in his recently announced position as set designer for all JPAS productions.
Madeleine Appel (soprano), Roxane Assaf (alto), Steven Mylie (baritone) and Frank von Hoven and Robert Wagner (tenors) all lend their voices in support as pit singers.
The lighting designs by Earl Lennie, III are also quite special, some incorporating strobe effects to set the mood. Lighting the stage for frightful nighttime effects and creating some of the spooky scenes for the Addams ancestors are handled quite well and Derrick Richardson’s sound designs also receive high marks.
A special shout out to Amanda Bravender for the extensive hair and makeup designs that added to the spectacle of the show. Avery Colle and Christian Stewart are credited with designing and building some of the costumes, although most of were provided to JPAS through rentals from the Kansas City Costume Company.
“The Addams Family” finishes its run at East Jefferson High School Auditorium, 400 Phlox Avenue in Metairie, this weekend with shows on Friday, Oct. 29, and Saturday, Oct. 30, at 7:30 p.m. and the final matinee on Sunday, Oct. 31 at 2:00. Tickets are available here. For more information, call 504-885-2000.