It's creepy and it's kooky, mysterious and spooky, and it spent almost two years on Broadway. It's the stage musical The Addams Family, based on Charles Addams' macabre cartoons about an otherwise all-American family that just happens to be obsessed with darkness and death.
The Addams Family makes its southeastern debut this week with performances by the young actors of the Savannah Summer Theatre Institute, a by-audition, intensive summer camp for musical theater students, who come in from all over the country (15 states this year). It takes place in the Savannah Country Day School’s Jelks Auditorium.
Benjamin Wolfe began the program, on a shoestring, seven summers ago. “The very first year, we weren’t even able to use the venue,” he reflects. “They let us use White Bluff Presbyterian Church to do our show. I’m sure there was trepidation at first—I was 20 years old and I was saying ‘Let me do a play!’ That’s essentially what it was. Back then, it was just a local thing.”
What a difference a few successes make. Following the program’s last two shows, Legally Blonde and Rent, word got out that Wolfe and his staff were doing exemplary work.
For 2014, applications nearly doubled. Wolfe was able to hand-pick the best of the best for the 24 talented, professionally minded teens needed to make The Addams Family tick (even so, there are two completely different casts, performing the show on alternating nights).
The young performers were required to study up on the various Addams appearances over the years (including the corny TV sitcom from the 1960s, and the ‘90s Raul Julia/Anjelica Houston movies). Before they set foot inside the theater for the first rehearsal, they had to have their lines memorized. And the songs.
That’s called being “off book.”
Wolfe himself has been in Addams-land even longer. “I’ve been working basically full-time on this since January,” he laughs. “It’s funny, the kids will get frustrated with something technical that maybe doesn’t work, but what they don’t understand is I was sketching it out in January in New York City, in a Starbucks. So for me, that’s six months of something not working.”
The SSI students are housed in Bluffton, and bus-ride it to Country Day five days a week for eight daily hours of rehearsal with director Wolfe, musical director Andrew Austin and choreographer Sarah Claire Smith.
During the last week, Tony-winning actor Shuler Hensley (Oklahoma!, Tarzan, Waiting For Godot) will attend a performance and conduct a master class with the students.
The Addams Family was written by Andrew Lippa, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. The Broadway version, starring Nathan Lane as Gomez and Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia, opened in 2010 after lengthy tryouts in Chicago.
“The version that we’re doing is the version that they re-tooled,” says Wolfe. “They changed directors right before it went to Broadway, and they didn’t get to fix everything they wanted to fix. So after Broadway, right before it went out on the national tour, they got the entire creative team back together and re-constructed the show for about a month and a half.
“So this is the national tour version, which works a lot better than the Broadway version did.”
If you’re interested, the plot involves young Wednesday Addams’ budding romance with a “normal” kid, marriage issues between Morticia and Gomez, and Uncle Fester’s obsession with the moon.
Andy Paul, who plays Fester in one of the program’s two casts, is one of the few local kids attending the Summer Theatre Institute (it’s the fifth year in the program for the 16-year-old Savannah Country Day student).
Paul is a veteran of the Savannah Children’s Theatre, and he has nothing but good things to say about the intensive SSTI program, and The Addams Family. “It’s an amazing experience,” he explains.
“In many of the shows that I do, there are instances where the leads are best friends, and then the ensemble are friends. But there’s really an atmosphere of family here. Everyone knows everyone and everyone cares about everyone. And there’s so many advantages to that when you’re onstage.”