Don’t let anyone tell you there’s no dramatic tension in The Addams Family. To the contrary, you’ll spend several breathless minutes, during one particular tango, wondering whether one or more of Morticia’s signal assets will emerge even further from her daringly low-cut gown.
Everything else you may have heard, however, is quite true: A spectacular lack of narrative imagination, an enervatingly insipid collection of tunes, and a hugely cynical reliance on what audiences already know about the Addams add up to one of the most misbegotten major Broadway musicals in years. I’d sooner have sat through Bonnie and Clyde.
The story, such as it is: Wee morbid Wednesday, who’s all grown up now, has met a boy, and though her little brother Pugsley worries she won’t want to torture him recreationally once she’s taken the plunge, their live-wire Uncle Fester and a graveyard full of family ghosts are determined to do their best to help smooth the way to the altar.
There are just a few hurdles: The fellow in question comes from a family of “normals”—he’s moved to Manhattan from the Midwest, even!—and at the urging of the skittish Wednesday, the ordinarily devoted patriarch Gomez is keeping Mama Morticia in the dark about the budding romance. With Wednesday’s beloved and his tourist parents arriving imminently for a get-acquainted dinner, Our Sulky Heroine just wants everyone to act normal for a night. Whatever could go wrong?
Well, we could spend needless stage time on another of those tangos, which insists on reminding us at length of something that’s been well established in book scenes: that Morticia and Gomez never keep a thing from one another, and that she will be icily injured should this little secret-engagement business come to light. One supposes that either the writers wanted to underline what little is at stake—or that they just realized how desperately bored the audience would be at that point and decided to wedge in another dance number.
Or Pugsley could waylay the truth potion Grandmama Addams has cooked up to free Wednesday from her worries and serve it to the boyfriend’s mom—thus loosening up her corset to the point that she’ll be table-surfing by the end of her number, whose title...is something I frankly cannot recall.
But then that’s most of the show, which, had I paid for my seats in the hopes of even a slender summer entertainment, I would resent even more thoroughly than I do. Let it be said that there are a few laughs to be had—mostly reflexive, relieved chuckles of recognition when Cousin It or Thing make their brief appearances—and that the cast is as professional as all get-out. Would that the material they’re flailing their way gamely through didn’t seem so very amateur-hour.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson Written by Alex Timbers; Music and Lyrics by Michael Friedman Directed by Keith Alan Baker; Choreographed by Diane Coburn Bruning; At Studio Theatre 2ndStage to Aug. 19
If I had my way, the Kennedy Center wouldn’t book in transparent cash-cow tours like The Addams Family; in fact, if I were running things, I’d...well, I’d program challenging new work, regardless of what the board of trustees said and how audiences responded. Then I’d probably either lose my job when the balance sheets ran red, or learn to juggle art and commerce in a way that would come to seem like a betrayal. That’s what happens when people hand you the power you say you want: You learn that it’s a hell of a burden, and that you’re never going to make everybody happy.
So too in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the emo-rock fable that frames the story of America’s seventh president as a Tea Party-style take-back-my-country struggle, right down to the righteous wrath about taxes and rage about Eastern elites looking down their noses at the folks beyond the Appalachians. Or is it a parable about the excesses of the Bush Administration, with a charismatic populist outsider whipping up outrage over a brokered (read: stolen) election decided by a handful of entrenched Washingtonians, with just the thinnest veneer of legality to hide the back-room deals?
Works either way, really, which is one of this slick little show’s chief virtues. And either way you read it, the lesson is the same: Righteous rabble-rousers learn pretty quickly, once they take the reins, that the system is the system, and the people will eventually blame you for its dysfunction no matter how hard you buck it.
I can’t say I’m quite as taken with Bloody Bloody as many of New York’s critics were, but then political satire plays differently in the town where the sausage gets made; what seemed incisive to a Manhattanite in the early days of the Obama Administration might come off as merely facile in the here and now. That said, it’s an enjoyably rowdy exercise in efficiently compressed (hi)storytelling, an 85-minute whirl through a frontier childhood, an Indian massacre or 12, the Battle of New Orleans, and the conquest of Florida and the capture of enough territory to basically double the size of the teenage America. All of that, mind you, before Jackson arrived in Washington to take his seat in the Oval Office.
Michael Friedman’s shaggily propulsive music and lyrics aren’t quite as controlled and incisive as the show’s book, by Alex Timbers of the oddball New York troupe Les Freres Corbusier. But Michael Youstra’s band does right by the dozen-odd tunes, which range from the unruly “Populism, Yea, Yea!” (which kicks the evening off) to the haunting “Ten Little Indians” (which recasts that nursery rhyme as an executioner’s song). Fronting a good-size ensemble of powerfully piped young D.C. theatermakers is Heath Calvert, whose Andrew Jackson is, as the show would have it, the sort of tight-jeans sex machine whose appeal to the electorate is precisely that of a rock star’s to his groupies.
He’s not a hero, though, not for long, not once we’re reminded of how thoroughly he embodied the idea of American exceptionalism, how ready he was to take what he wanted regardless of whom it hurt, how callously he uprooted whole nations of Native Americans, having promised them (of course) that he wouldn’t.
A tragic hero, maybe—a man who thought he spoke for the little guy, convinced that he could get a good grip on history and turn it in the direction he thought was right. But as the show’s battered narrator will eventually observe, history has a way of having the last word.