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A scene from "The Addams Family"

2.5 out of 4 stars

Toronto has two big Broadway musicals competing for family audiences right now. If yours is the kind of family that likes to fly kites, dance with cheery chimney sweeps and take medicine with a spoonful of sugar, then Mary Poppins is the obvious choice.

If, on the other hand, yours is the sort of creepy clan that prefers arsenic over sugar, likes to cavort with animated corpses and enjoys a friendly game of torture on the rack, you'll take much macabre pleasure in The Addams Family.

The gleefully ghoulish comedy, currently haunting the Toronto Centre for the Arts as part of the Dancap season, almost sets itself up as the anti- Mary Poppins. Not only does it contain a sly reference to that show, it also has a better flying sequence. Where the latter's magical nanny merely rises rigidly into the air, The Addams Family's Uncle Fester (a delightful Blake Hammond) climbs gracefully into the night sky and frolics with the moon.

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But that little lunar interlude, a thoroughly charming bit of whimsy, is the one real flight of inspiration in an otherwise jokey, amiable and completely inconsequential piece of musical theatre. Much has been made of the fact that this touring production is an overhaul of the critically mauled version currently winding down its run on Broadway. That may be so, but it still strikes one as a glorified sitcom episode, with funny but overly topical songs by Andrew Lippa that dissolve like phantoms in daylight as soon as you leave the theatre. You exit humming the same tune you were humming on the way in – Vic Mizzy's famous finger-snapping theme to the 1960s television series.

That series, the 1990s feature films and their original source, the New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams, are all drawn upon in Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's book. But the plot also owes a debt to that Kaufman and Hart chestnut, You Can't Take It with You. This time out, the Addams' daughter, glum, crossbow-wielding Wednesday (Cortney Wolfson, looking like Twilight's Alice Cullen), is all grown up and wants to marry a normal boy (Brian Justin Crumb). She's invited him and his unsuspecting folks (Martin Vidnovic and Crista Moore) to meet her eccentric family and dine with them at their spooky mansion (now located in the wilds of New York's Central Park).

When Wednesday reveals to her dad, the dashing, sword-wielding Gomez (Douglas Sills), that she's become engaged, she entreats him not to tell mom. That would be gloomily gorgeous Morticia (Sara Gettelfinger), the archetype of vampire chic. It forces Gomez to deceive his beloved wife for the first time in their marriage and drives a wedge – or should that be a stake? – between them.

Meanwhile, Wednesday's prepubescent brother, the masochistic, cigar-wielding Pugsley (Patrick D. Kennedy) – afraid to lose his sadistic sister and their regular torture sessions – conspires to wreck the engagement with the help of a magic potion purloined from witchy Grandma (Pippa Pearthree). And Uncle Fester, invested in seeing Wednesday wed and the Addams line continue, calls on the aid of their dead ancestors, revivified as a sprightly chorus of singing and dancing cadavers. (The witty choreography is by Canadian Sergio Trujillo.)

Sills, rocking a vintage matinee-idol look, is splendid as the ever-romantic, ever-Spanish Gomez – even if some of his songs and gags were clearly tailored for the show's original star, Nathan Lane. Gettelfinger is terrific belting out a merrily morbid ditty called Just Around the Corner (as in "Death is…") that recalls Monty Python's Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. It's Hammond, though, who steals the show as Fester, turning the bald, sunken-eyed hulk into a sweet, gently wisecracking vaudevillean.

His moonstruck fantasy and other playful touches display the hand of original director/designers Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, co-creators of the darkly clever cult musical Shockheaded Peter. One of their horror-movie flourishes in the Broadway show, an amorous giant squid, has been deep-sixed in this version, which was supervised by veteran Mr. Fix-It, Jerry Zaks. However, there are still cameo appearances by popular Addams characters Thing and Cousin Itt, and an amusing monster-under-the-bed courtesy of puppeteer Basil Twist.

The central joke of the Addams Family has always been that, despite their bizarre tastes and abnormal behaviour, they're a happy, functioning bunch. In that respect, they've got one up on the miserable, conflicted Edwardian family that needs to be rescued by Mary Poppins. When you think about it, The Addams Family, for all its severed limbs and jokes about the Spanish Inquisition, may actually be the more lighthearted of the two musicals.

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The Addams Family runs until Nov. 27.

Special to The Globe and Mail

The Addams Family

  • Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
  • Music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa
  • Directed and designed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch
  • Supervised by Jerry Zaks
  • Starring Douglas Sills, Sara Gettelfinger and Blake Hammond
  • At the Toronto Centre for the Arts

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