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by Michael L. Quintos
This holiday season, Orange County found itself playing host to two very different families that couldn't be more disparate from one another -- well, at least on the surface.
Over in Anaheim Hills, the Chance Theater once again offered its touching revival of LITTLE WOMEN: THE MUSICAL, an overlooked little family-friendly gem based on Louisa May Alcott's beloved novel. And further down south, the first national tour of the wicked musical comedy THE ADDAMS FAMILY: THE MUSICAL (based on the comic strip and subsequent TV and film adaptations of the same name) is finishing up its final stop at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.
Sure, the two stage musicals -- both of which are enhanced adaptations featuring infamous characters from previously published works -- are as different as night and day in terms of mood, tone, and execution. But by sheer coincidence, both shows' plots are centered around strong-willed, tenacious daughters that, more than anything, want to rock the status quo of their pre-determined lives. Of course, while one young lady revels in only making up wild, gory stories filled with "blood and guts," the other actually lives for such gory, real-life horrors (it's sorta the family business).
But as both musicals begin their narratives, we find an unexpected convergence of themes: a daughter in each family wants desperately to break free from their respective societal "norms."
For LITTLE WOMEN's wordsmith Jo March (Erika C. Miller), normalcy means whatever is expected of young American women of the 1860's: time-honored female etiquette, proper courtship, and unwavering subservience. But stubborn, steadfast Jo would rather ditch the frilly, girly stuff her sisters are more into, and would rather just play side-by-side with the big boys and best them at their own game. Her true passion -- her "finest dream" -- is to be a published writer, which in her time was a profession that frequently shuns the fairer gender.
Lucky for Jo, her immediate family -- including her mother Marmee (Eloise Coopersmith) and sisters Beth (Tasha Tormey), Meg (Laura M. Hathaway) and Amy (Valerie Sloan / Kelsey Jones) -- not only supports her dreams wholeheartedly, they even play along and volunteer as "actors" in Jo's dramatic attic renderings of her stories. But not everyone is as charmed by Jo's tendencies.
In terms of THE ADDAMS FAMILY, normalcy for them is to be draped in the ghoulish cobwebs of dastardly deeds that are, well, creepy and cooky... mysterious and spooky (snap, snap). It's this deliciously wicked lifestyle -- or should we say, um, deadstyle -- that serves as the bedrock for their own brand of eerie family values instilled by a quirky clan headed up by Gomez (the brilliant Douglas Sills) and Morticia (the amazing Sara Gettelfinger) Addams.
This outright giddiness for morbid things have clearly been passed down from their undead ancestors to their own brethren: their torture-loving son Pugsley (Patrick D. Kennedy) and their eldest daughter, bow-and-arrow expert Wednesday (Cortney Wolfson). To punctuate the wackiness, their hidden compound also houses Grandma (Pippa Pearthree), Uncle Fester (scene-stealer Blake Hammond), and their zombie butler Lurch (Tom Corbeil).
But what can possibly throw a wrench into their situation? Well, the opposite of weird: Wednesday has -- gasp! -- fallen in love with a "normal" boy, Lucas (Curtis Holbrook). Even more serious... Lucas' "normal" parents Mal (Martin Vidnovic) and Alice (the awesome Gaelen Gilliland) are coming over to the Addams' gruesome mansion for a meet-the-parents dinner from hell. To complicate things further, Wednesday -- newly enthused with yellow dresses, puppy dogs, and unicorns -- asks her dad to keep the secret of her engagement to Lucas from her mom Morticia. Uh oh.
The fact that both musicals -- different as they are -- highlight in their own distinct way someone overcoming their societal barriers in order to pursue their true selves (i.e., their true desires) isn't such a shock reminds us just how universal such pursuits are, especially in the cannon of musical theater. Much like Elphaba, Effie White and Elle Woods yearned for a life that "exceeds their finest dreams," both Jo and Wednesday would risk anything to get what they want, and in the span of two acts, usually much of it goes well all around.
Likable and unquestionably entertaining in their own ways, both musicals, sadly, didn't blow the roof off on Broadway. LITTLE WOMEN -- despite the novel's fanbase, a truly beguiling score, and the glowing presence of Sutton Foster, Maureen McGovern, and Megan McGinnis -- lasted only 137 performances; THE ADDAMS FAMILY -- despite healthy box office receipts -- was initially panned by critics and had to be re-tooled almost completely for the national tour incarnation (A big YAY for that). I, for one, am glad both shows found new life beyond New York, and these two productions exemplify each show's strengths quite well.
The Chance Theater's repeat regional production of LITTLE WOMEN, directed once again by Casey Long, fills the black box theater's space really well, re-imagining the set as a literal novel coming to life and is reiterated by giant book pages that act as proscenium columns on opposite sides. The added digital backgrounds -- a luxury other small theater companies probably envy -- also further enhance the show.
This multi-Ovation Award-winning theater company has been known to rework pieces to better occupy its black box space (their unique take on WEST SIDE STORY earlier this season comes to mind), and here it succeeds -- to some degree. Though this is no doubt a valiant mounting that takes full advantage of every available nook and cranny, much of the grandness of the musical's original staging and storytelling loses some impact, especially during the fantasy sequences -- which, in the grand scheme of things, is just a slight consequence of the space's limitations.
The difference between this production and a larger one like, say, the first national tour that breezed by the OC many years ago (and featured one of its original Broadway stars, McGovern) is that the made-up, fantastical "gory" stories that sprung from Jo's head were allowed to grow into full-scale, otherwordly fantasies that really popped and mesmerized. Here, unfortunately, the space occupied mostly by the dark attic never truly opens up for Jo's imagination to be fully realized. The scenes do get their point(s) across, certainly, but just shy of being extraordinary.
The show's songs are actually quite lovely, but here, too, feel less than memorable, likely because the small-scaled production reduces the musical accompaniment to a lone piano. Don't get me wrong... the show's hardworking pianist Bill Strongin does an admirable job not only with keeping up with the action (I'm sure the actors were having a hard time hearing their background music, which explains why they were noticeably not singing in-sync with the music in several spots), but he also provides beautiful underscoring during the quieter, heart-tugging moments -- particularly during Marmee's "Here Alone" and "Days of Plenty," and, later, Beth and Jo's gorgeous seaside duet "Some Things Are Meant To Be" (the latter, by the way, really gets me teary every time, without fail).
Maybe an upright bass, a flutist or an additional violinist, and perhaps some percussion would have enhanced (or amplified) some of the enormity missing from some of the set pieces.
Still, the show is helped tremendously by its swell cast, particularly lead actor Miller as Jo. Believably wide-eyed, stubborn, passionate, and tomboy-ish, Miller gamely plays her version of Jo as the very same one we can almost imagine leaping off the page.
THE ADDAMS FAMILY musical's touring version, meanwhile, truly improves itself from its previous Broadway incarnation, providing audiences with a musical comedy that's sincerely hilarious from start to finish. I first caught the show's re-tooled reboot during its stop at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre (you can peruse that review here), and found it to be a wonderful, laugh-a-minute surprise, despite my little exposure to both the comic strip or the infamous TV series to trigger nostalgic feelings (the TV show, only barely gets a nod in this stage incarnation).
As the current national tour plays its final stop in Costa Mesa, the show remains as vibrant and as, ha ha, adorable as ever. Though the belly laughs mined from its 'everything-dead-and-morbid is funny' conceit were quieter than the reception it received during its Los Angeles opening -- this is the OC after all -- the musical comedy still genuinely earns laughs from its witty banter, hummable songs, and out-there characters and set pieces (that love song about the moon is worth the price of admission alone).
Sills and Gettelfinger create magical chemistry (their tango in Act 2 is a thrilling highlight), while Hammond, Gilliland, and Corbeil are wonderful show-stealers. If you can, I urge you to see the show with this cast before the tour ends December 30.
Though everyone's traditions may vary, here's hoping that the holidays prove to be a good one for us all, as we gather to celebrate with our respective families. To steal a line from a song from LITTLE WOMEN (with a nod to THE ADDAMS FAMILY)... we can only hope that "Christmas will be thrilling. Christmas will be gory. Christmas will exceed our finest dreams."
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the first national tour of THE ADDAMS FAMILY: The Musical by Jeremy Daniel. From top to bottom: Gomez (Douglas Sills) and Morticia (Sara Gettelfinger) do the tango; the cast; Uncle Fester (Blake Hammond) is lit; Grandma (Pippa Pearthree) gives Pugsley (Patrick D. Kennedy) a quick lesson. Photos from The Chance Theater's LITTLE WOMEN: The Broadway Musical by Doug Catiller. From top to bottom: Beth (Tasha Tormey) and Jo (Erika C. Miller) fly a kite; Marmee (Eloise Coopersmith) comforts Amy (Valerie Sloan); the four March sisters (Laura M. Hathaway, Sloan, Tormey and Miller); Jo (Miller) imagines her story.
Final performances of the 1st National Tour Production of THE ADDAMS FAMILY at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through December 30, 2012. Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, call 714-556-2787 or visit SCFTA.org.
The Chance Theater is located at 5552 E. La Palma Avenue in Anaheim Hills. For more information on future productions (including the West Coast premiere of TRIASSIC PARQ -THE MUSICAL January 25 - February 24, 2013) or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.chancetheater.com.