Taking The Addams Family as a sign, I'm excited about the District Theatre's future in downtown Rock Island's former Argus building, and while there are still a few growing pains to overcome, the company is clearly off to a good start.
This new location allows plenty of performance space, and director/scenic designer Tristan Layne Tapscott takes full advantage here with a hinged backdrop that folds in on itself to allow for quick, mere-seconds-long changes from outside the Addams' house to its interior. Equally welcome are Tapscott's scene changes. His direction finds actors simply moving to the sides of the playing area and continuing their songs while the set is altered, allowing the performance to be seamless rather than peppered with stopping points that pull you out of the story.
I cannot, though, adequately assess designer Anthony Natarelli's lighting effects, because they aren't being employed properly, having been set too low and, mostly, too far in the back of the theatre. While television's premier macabre family should be in shade, here the effect seems less intentional than unavoidable. And as much as the actors are in shadow, so, too, are their voices murky. The performance space, at present, lacks sound dampening, which means voices tend to bounce around, and I missed lines and lyrics as a result.
While I liked The Addams Family overall, it's also the rare musical in which I prefer the book to the music, with writers' Marshall Brickman's and Eric Elice's tale echoing the jokey shtick of the sitcom. Here, Wednesday (Liv Lyman, in lovely voice) is older and in love with the comparatively normal Lucas (the charming Natarelli), and invites him to dinner so their families can meet. Meanwhile, Uncle Fester (James Fairchild) plans to ensure that love conquers all with the help of the Addams' ancestors, portrayed with ghoulish delight by Aaron Lord, Mark Ruebling, and Linda Ruebling beneath Nici Bennett's and Spencer Fillman's impressive makeup. The show's main problem, though, is that composer Andrew Lippa's songs rarely match the characters' familiar personalities; when Gomez (Jason Platt) sang the sweet, loving number "Happy/Sad" to Wednesday, I kept thinking, "There's no way Gomez would sing this!" The tunes are fine-to-great, especially Fester's "The Moon & Me," but most of them belong in a different musical altogether.
What's enjoyable about this staging, though, is its blend of characterizations that mimic those from the original series and characterizations that reach beyond them. Fairchild, a true joy in this production, perfectly matches TV's Fester, while Christopher Tracy does a spot-on Pugsley. The enrapturing Sara Wegener's deadpan deliveries as Lurch, meanwhile, are captivating, as is the marvelous costume designed by Sara Kutzli and Wegener herself, with the performer standing on stilts for height and wearing shoulder pads for proportion. (When a set piece hit a chandelier on Friday, Wegener simply reached up and steadied it.)
Platt, on the other hand, is among those who channel their Addams Family TV personas but don't let the sitcom dictate their performances. His Gomez remains a flirt with a flair for the dramatic, but the actor shapes him with additional empathy and what I call his signature "Platt pauses." (The actor has a tendency to pause mid-sentence and repeat a word before continuing - he might, for example, say "It's just that I ... I want to talk to you" - and this technique helps his line deliveries seem sincere rather than recited.) Jason's real-life wife Erin Platt, whose Morticia is still a curvy, confident sexpot, is also more self-absorbed and jealous, leaning more toward Anjelica Huston's film portrayal than Carolyn Jones'. And Nancy Teerlinck alters her portrayal so that she seems more of an off-her-rocker than odd-duck Grandma Addams, and elicits quite a few laughs for it.
Playing Lucas' parents Mal and Alice Beineke are David Miller and Jennifer Sondgeroth, and although Mal doesn't offer Miller much to work with - he's mostly a career-minded dud - the actor lends him a nuanced pride in his former youthful glories. Sondgeroth, though, seems to relish Alice's ditzy demeanor, and pulls off fantastic physical comedy that makes Alice's limbs look as dopey as her brain. While The Addams Family may not emerge among my favorite musicals, the District Theatre's production is loaded with laughs and filled with strong performances, and while I doubt I'll remember the musical much, I will recall having a good time at this presentation.
The Addams Family runs at the District Theatre (1724 Fourth Avenue, Rock Island) through August 30, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)235-1654 or visiting DistrictTheatre.com.