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‘Addams Family’ preserves the ooky, spooky fun of original cartoons

It’s natural to spend Thanksgiving holiday with the family.

Unless, of course, it’s “The Addams Family,” in which case it might be the teensiest bit unnatural. Not to mention a whole lot of ooky, spooky musical fun.

Yes, that merrily macabre clan – first conjured by New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams in the late 1930s – is spending Thanksgiving week in Neon Nirvana; the touring “Addams Family” musical opens an eight-performance run Tuesday at The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall.

And they’re all “really jazzed” to be visiting Vegas, says Douglas Sills, alias dashing Addams patriarch Gomez.

And why shouldn’t they be? After all, they’re the best “Addams Family” yet – at least according to creative consultant Jerry Zaks , a four-time Tony-winning director who came aboard to revamp the work of director-designers Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch created.

Although some changes were made between the musical’s Chicago premiere and its Broadway debut, “we had to stop,” Zaks says.

But that didn’t stop him and the show’s core creative team – including “Jersey Boys” writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elise, composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa and choreographer Sergio Trujillo – from taking “a hard look at what we did not accomplish” before the show debuted on Broadway in 2010 to less-than-rapturous reviews.

“It always hurts when somebody expresses contempt for your work,” Zaks acknowledges, “(but) then you go back to work. We knew we had to make the show better.”

Watching the “fantastic” Broadway cast (led by Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth as Gomez and his slinky Mrs., Morticia) do their show for almost two years gave the creative team time to ponder how they might improve it, Sills explains.

Although “it wasn’t a 360-degree change,” the actor notes, Zaks and Co. made some “very significant alterations,” adding new scenes and new songs while cutting those that didn’t work.

The show’s “about 40 to 50 percent different” in its current incarnation, Sills says.

The key change: reimagining the show with Gomez and Morticia at the center, he explains.

In the initial Broadway version, Gomez and Morticia (Sara Gettelfinger ) weren’t the main couple.

Instead, the show focused on daughter Wednesday (played by Cortney Wolfson ) and her strangely “normal” fiance (Curtis Holbrook ), the son of two hopelessly square Ohio suburbanites (Martin Vidnovic , Gaelan Gilliland ).

Heightening the show’s dramatic “conflict between Morticia and Gomez” – especially because it’s the first time they had disagreed during their marriage – made all the difference, Zaks says.

Reworking the show proved to be “a humbling process, but a delicious one,” Zaks says. “There isn’t a production that I’ve worked on that’s not better the second time.”

And this time, “in my opinion, it’s the best version of the show” yet, Zaks says. “I’m happy for the way the show is going – I hope the audience likes it.”

Then again, he adds, “I think the audience is predisposed to like it.”

Probably from the first notes of the snap-along, clap-along “Addams Family” theme, borrowed from the 1964 TV sitcom (which featured John Astin as Gomez and Carolyn Jones as Morticia) and resurrected in the 1991 movie and its 1993 sequel “Addams Family Values.” (Both movies starred Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston as Mr. and Mrs. Addams.)

This “Addams Family,” however, harks back to Addams’ original New Yorker cartoons – as “required by the Addams estate,” Sills says. “That was the only requirement: The creators had to go back to the original cartoons themselves,” rather than one of the subsequent adaptations.

While you can ponder one of Addams’ mordantly funny cartoon panels for as long as you need to get the joke, however, “if you’re sitting in a theater seat, the action has to keep moving,” Sills points out. “We have to hold the audience’s attention for 2½ hours.”

To that end, this “Addams Family” employs a familiar comedic complication: a wacky family trying to act “normal” so as not to shock future in-laws during the inevitable meet-the-parents encounter. Another recent movie-to-musical adaptation, “La Cage aux Folles,” also uses the plot device, but the premise dates back to Kaufman and Hart’s zany 1936 classic “You Can’t Take It With You.”

Zaks acknowledges the “You Can’t Take It With You” connection, noting reactions ranging from “What a wonderful notion” to “Oh dear, what a notion.”

But the trademark Addams inversion – “dark is light and light is dark” – gives the old plot a new twist, Zaks suggests.

“It’s darkly funny, it’s ghoulishly funny, but it’s funny,” he says. “It’s our own interpretation of what it means to be an Addams.”

And as Sills’ Gomez sings (with the rest of the gang) in “When You’re an Addams,” the show’s opening number, “Give us shadows and give us gloom, broken glass in a motel room, something fun we can all exhume … “

As Sills observes, “The Addams Family” captures that “black/white, day/night duality” that comes from the original cartoons, which filtered “the perfunctory routine of modern Western life” through Charles Addams’ own off-kilter sensibility.

“It’s not ‘Oh no, the dog pooped on the carpet,’ ” Sills says. “It’s ‘Call a bulldozer – the dragon relieved himself on the living room floor.’ ”

Sills was invited to join the revamped show “with the advent of a new script possibility,” he says.

It helped that he and Zaks had previously collaborated on another ooky movie-to-musical adaptation: “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Clearly, Sills jokes, there’s “something funny and very dark” about him.

Yet “people are always surprised how funny it is,” Sills says of the “Addams Family” musical. “It’s good for kids, but it’s not immature.”

Besides, it just wouldn’t be the holidays without a family gathering.

So this one includes the likes of loony, moonstruck Uncle Fester (Blake Hammond), Wednesday’s (literally) tortured little brother Pugsley (Patrick D. Kennedy), grizzled Grandma (Pippa Pearthree ) and towering butler Lurch (Tom Corbeil ).

When you’re an Addams, the more the merrier.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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