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Solid but not spectacular

All photos by Joan Marcus

Theater critics and Tony Award nominators might not want to accept a dinner invitation from Morticia and Gomez Addams at the couple’s Gothic mansion in New York’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

The musical “The Addams Family,” which opened on Broadway in early April, was panned by critics and received only two Tony Award nominations and was shut out in the best musical and acting categories.

However, the musical about the kooky and offbeat family created by cartoonist Charles Addams, the subject of a successful television series and a movie, has been a hit with theater goers and groups.

“ ‘The Addams Family’ has been racking it in every week,” said Dennis Martin, director of group sales for Theatre Direct. “They have a very recognizable product; everybody knows them and remembers them fondly. And you add the one-two punch of Nathan Lane [as Gomez] and Bebe Neuwirth [as Morticia].”

Scott Mallalieu, president of Group Sales Box Office, agreed: “They have name recognition. Groups know they are going to have fun simply by seeing a show named ‘The Addams Family.’ They like it whether the critics do or not. It was a season when critics liked some things extremely well but they did not succeed, while others they didn’t like did well.”

“The Addams Family” has been one of the big hits in a season devoid of the traditional blockbuster.

“It was a good, solid season. But there was no real breakout hit like ‘Billy Elliott,’” said Mallalieu.
“We really didn’t have a ‘Producers’ this year, that big shattering hit,” said Martin.

One of the big winners was the city of Memphis, Tenn., which is featured in two of the four shows nominated for best musical: “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Memphis.” Both shows, which bucked the trend and were critically well received and did well at the box office, should be around for a while.

“Million Dollar Quartet,” which originated at Chicago’s Apollo Theatre, centers around Dec. 4, 1956, when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins were all present for a jam session at Memphis’ legendary Sun Studios.

The show weaves in biographical details of the four stars and their relationships with Sun owner Sam Phillips with many of their hit songs.

“The audience loves it; the characters and songs they know,” said Martin, who added the actors accurately capture their characters without being impersonators.

Although “Memphis” deals with real people in the city’s rock ’n’ roll history, all of its songs are original.

“ ‘Memphis’ is a real book musical,” said Martin, “Although it is based on actual people, it is a brand-new score. It has that great early rock ’n’ roll feel, but it is not a jukebox musical.

“And the two leads, Chad Kimball and Montego Glover, are just really phenomenal. I am glad both got nominated [for Tony Awards] with all the bigger names.”

Kimball, who plays a young white disc jockey in 1950s Memphis, was nominated for best performance by a leading actor in a musical, and Glover, who portrays a rising black singer who falls in love with him, was nominated for best performance by a leading actress in a musical.

The other two best-musical nominees were “American Idiot,” a rock opera based on the songs of the punk-rock band Green Day, and “Fela!,” which garnered the most Tony nominations with 11.

“Fela!” tells the story of African musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti using his pioneering Afrobeat music, a blend of jazz, funk and African rhythm and harmonies.

A late-spring arrival that is doing well is the revival of “La Cage aux Folles,” starring veteran British stage actor Douglas Hodge and American television star Kelsey Grammer, both of whom were nominated for best performance by a leading actor in a musical.

“Douglas Hodge is pretty amazing, and by adding Kelsey Grammer to the mix, you would think they’ve been doing it for years,” said Martin.

Although a previous revival of “La Cage,” which originally appeared on Broadway in 1984, was just five years ago, Martin said the new revival “is a slightly different way of looking at it.

“They are getting down the real characters. There is less emphasis on the flash and dazzle, although there is still plenty of it, and you get underneath the people’s skins more and find out who they are.”

Twyla Tharp, who took the music of Billy Joel and did a successful dance musical with “Movin’ Out,” has turned her attention to Frank Sinatra in “Come Fly Away.”

“She had done the same thing with Sinatra,” said Martin. “There is no actor portraying Sinatra. It’s just his music being danced to.”

Sinatra’s recorded vocals are combined with a live orchestra. “I much prefer it to some imitator,” said Martin. “There is nothing in it groups wouldn’t like, but tour groups tend to like more standard book musicals.”

Martin said two plays that are easy sells to groups are “Lend Me a Tenor” — “a flat-out farce with lots of mistaken identities and doors slamming” — and “Next Fall.”

“It’s funny, but have your Kleenex ready,” he said. “It does everything right. It has an ensemble cast no one had ever heard of, but the producers were smart and took the same six people off-Broadway and moved them up to Broadway. You get really super actors in a super play. There is nothing to object to, and it might create some lively discussions on the bus on the way home.”

Two musicals, the delayed revival of “Godspell” and “Unchain My Heart,” about Ray Charles, are scheduled to open this fall, along with the play “Lombardi,” about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

“They are promoting it as a show you can take the glee club and the football team to,” said Martin.

“Next spring, we have three big things coming in. “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” is a big hit in London, and “Love Never Dies,” a look at the “Phantom [of the Opera]” people 10 years later. We could see at either end of Broadway the beginning and the sequel.”

The other much-anticipated show is a play about which Martin is especially enthusiastic.
“War Horse,” a National Theater production, tells about World War I from the view of a horse.

“The horses are portrayed by life-size puppets,” said Martin, who saw the play in London. “It was one of my most spectacular nights in a theater. It takes three different actors to manipulate them. You would swear these horses are breathing. It is amazing how subtle they are.

“There is a moving, inspirational story that goes with it. The plot emotionally grabs everyone in the theater. I was sitting next to a man who was crying harder than me. His wife was handing him Kleenex.”

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