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“Catch Me if You Can” tour review. May 13, 2013

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour, musical theater.
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The non-AEA tour of the Broadway musical “Catch Me If You Can” makes its second local stop this week and next at the Fisher Theater in Detroit (It was at Wharton Center in East Lansing last month).

See my original review from the Broadway production for a more detailed review, but let me say that this is a very strong tour, with a very good (and VERY young) cast that works hard and delivers the evening’s highly entertaining production with no concerns about the non-union tour quality. Great performances are delivered by all.

The sets have been whittled down, but they are colorful and effective, though they rely more on video than did the original. Lighting is very colorful, and costuming is virtually intact from the Broadway production and everyone looks great in them, in particular Frank Jr. played by the stupendously talented Stephen Anthony (who, by the way for those who need to know these things does NOT take his clothing off for those scenes that Aaron Tveit made so memorable in NYC).

Overall, this is an electric ensemble cast — they are in character and spot-on entertaining throughout the 2.5 hour production, and there are many future Broadway stars among this (very good looking) cast, not the least of whom is Anthony. Recommended.

2012 Musical Theater Season in SE Michigan – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly… December 31, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour, Community Theater, Detroit, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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It’s hard to make a “best of” list in this area of the country, since the blend of collegiate, community, and professional often overlap and sometimes Community theater productions can be as good as (or better) than some professional productions, while at other times, college shows can look better than Broadway tours….nonetheless, here is my summary of the good, the bad, and the ugly…

The Best overall community theater production this past year was: GREY GARDENS at Ann Arbor Civic Theater. Special kudos to Kathy Waugh for her terrific performance.

The Best summer theater production was: SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS at Croswell Opera House. Its been a long long time since Croswell had such a dance-tacular production, thanks to the Hissong’s direction and choreography.

The Best summer theater production that was indistinguishable from a Broadway Tour: AVENUE Q at Croswell Opera House. It was so good, it was hard to even compare it to other local productions, it had to be held to professional Broadway tour standards — and it was as good as, if not better, than the tour that came through Michigan a few years ago.

Speaking of tours: The best Broadway Tour to come through Detroit was: JEKYLL & HYDE — Broadway Bound with a spectacular Tobin Ost set, and a remarkable performance by Constantine Maroulis.

The best Broadway Tour to come through Wharton Center in East Lansing was: ANYTHING GOES, with a touring cast led by Rachel York that was stronger than the Original Broadway cast.

The best local university musical was: CHICAGO at the University of Michigan. Although it had strong runners-up in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (also at UM) and LEGALLY BLONDE at MSU. Also delicious was SWEENEY TODD at Sienna Heights.

Speaking of Legally Blonde: I saw 4 productions of this show, and despite varied levels of good lead performances, it just goes to show that this is a musical that is hard to recreate without a multi-million dollar budget. The Original Broadway production is so deeply visually ingrained (thanks to MTV’s relentless showings a few years ago) that any non-professional production just pales in comparison. One favorite note: in the Croswell production, when the trailer door stuck, David Blackburn hilariously announced “I’ll just use the back door!” and came around from stage left complete with bulldog. It was the biggest laugh of any show I saw this past year.

The best small-cast show of the year: THE LAST 5 YEARS at Jackson Symphony Space — Jayna Katz and Adam Woolsey blew the roof off of the place nightly.

The best “becoming an annual tradition around here” musical: EVIL DEAD THE MUSICAL at Dexter Community Players. Expanding community theater’s boundaries by squirts and bounds, with a strong cast and twice the splatter-power.

I wasn’t impressed much by any of the local professional musical theater productions this year, although there were some mighty fine performances. The Dionysus Theater made a strong debut as a professional theater company with their holiday offering HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS – right out of the gate hitting all the right notes in a finely performed production in a gorgeous proscenium theater space.  A couple shows will go without mention here, because I abhor when major changes are made to Broadway musicals to fit a director’s “vision” or a small budget — but it is worthy to mention the lovely GODSPELL at Encore, where Dan Cooney took a show that has become bloated and almost unwatchable over the years, and turned it into a fresh, sparse, and clown-makeup-free delight.

Finally — one “ugly” — the reworked BEAUTY AND THE BEAST arrived at the Stranahan on tour, with a non-equity NETworks production, featuring some of the ugliest costumes and sets I have seen in a Broadway tour. UGH.



“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” musical tour (review) December 20, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour, Detroit, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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Take a 10-minute book, turned into a 30 minute tv special, and expand it to a 90-minute intermissionless musical, and you have the plusses and the minuses of the holiday musical “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” which is currently playing multiple times a day at the Detroit Opera House on its holiday tour.

There isn’t much critical to say about this production — it looks swell and the costume and set design is colorful and works well. The cast members are covered in loads of makeup and hair design, so they are pretty much interchangeable. I have several friends in this cast, and (honestly) I couldn’t pick them out in the ensemble for quite some time. Though I guess that is what it is.

Stefan Karl is an excellent Grinch, and he is clearly having a ball playing his part. He’s surrounded by an energetic cast, singing unremarkable songs, only the original animated tv version songs stand out (and “Your a Mean One Mr. Grinch” follows you home after the show — seriously, I listened to it about three times in the car on the way home and changed my ringtone to the tune)…and the Grinch stealing the presents sequence is brilliant.

The first third of the show is slow-going, but what follows is a holiday treat — well written, finely performed, and expertly designed, it’s like holiday cookies and milk. Sugary sweet, check. Lump in the throat, check. Grinch’s heart growing three sizes, check. Yours too. Feeling guilty in enjoying this tasty treat, check.

Just to make sure, though, there isn’t any mistaking this production with a typical Broadway show (even though this did run in NYC for several seasons)…it’s a holiday entertainment that is fun for the entire family. And based on this afternoon’s very full (and skewed toward toddlers) audience, families are turning out in droves.

Welcome, welcome Christmas Day…fun fluff, you’ll have a fun time.


Broadway-bound JEKYLL & HYDE revisal is excellent…(Tour review, Detroit) December 2, 2012

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There’s no way around it…you either love Jekyll & Hyde the musical or you hate it…and this production might just change a few minds for those who don’t. Completely restaged, reimagined, re-orchestrated and more in line with the original concept album than the 97 Broadway production, the revised Broadway bound Jekyll & Hyde is magnificent and gets just about everything right that the original did not.

Constantine Maroulis is excellent as Jekyll/Hyde as is Deborah Cox as Lucy. Teal Wicks turns in an emotional and heartfelt Emma and Laird Mackintosh as Utterson is steadfast and steady. Round it out with a fine supporting cast that never seems superfluous and never meanders across the stage without purpose as in the past production and you have a Broadway-ready cast and crew. All 20 cast members here are strong. Maroulis in particular is superb in the duel role of Jekyll and Hyde and he is in fine voice. Before the American Idol folks chime in, let me just remind people that before he was on that contest, he was a graduate of the Boston Conservatory and had done work at the Williamstown Theater Festival. He sings the part better than any performer I have heard in this part professionally.

Moodily atmospheric, Tobin Ost’s sets and costumes are stunning–and the stage far less cluttered and claustrophobic than the original…it works perfectly, complemented by Daniel Brodie’s excellent projections and Jeff Croiter’s rock-concert type lighting. The set and projections are so intertwined I’m not sure who to praise more, Tobin or Daniel, so I will praise them both.

Particularly effective here are the Fascade number (previously ensemble milling around in clumps) where, instead, maids and butlers dress the performers who play the Hospital Board of Governors. Another problematic number “Confrontation” which originally saw Jekyll turning his body side to side while singing “duet” with Hyde, here instead sings with a projection of Hyde, and it is magnificent projection design. Maroulis does very good vocal work here.

The one weakness at the Fisher is the sound design, which needs tweaking once it reaches the Richard Rodgers Theater, where it will no-doubt sound better than in the airplane-hanger-sized barn that is the Fisher Theater in Detroit.

This is a brand new show unlike the original and far superior to it. Who knew?  Clearly Frank Wildhorn did, as this reworked production is masterful. Credit director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun who manages it all at lightning pace without ever once missing a beat, while also not giving short-shrift to the quiet moments and emotion. Its very good work, and will surely be recognized at Tony time (as will, no doubt Tobin Ost’s set and Maroulis’s Jekyll/Hyde).  It comes in at 2:25 including intermission, and that is just right for this show. The great-looking scenery motion adds to the thrill — there are big pieces moving around here, and they flip and spin and rotate and revolve and form and reform like a gigantic erector set. No test-tubes and flickering candles in this lab, but an eerie, gothic, moody sensibility pervades everything.

Instant standing ovation at the end — expected of course, since this show has always thrilled audiences more than critics. I’ve been fortunate to direct this musical twice now…a few years from now, I am looking forward to directing this revised version somewhere, someday. Its superb. New Yorkers, feel free to purchase your tickets now — its coming in as a big fat certified hit.

I suppose I could have made this a much shorter review by just simply writing “I loved this production, go see it.”

Dance-tacular “Anything Goes” looks great on tour (review) October 21, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour, musical theater, Musicals.
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What a joy to revisit an old classic and find that the tour is as fresh and spectacular as the original Broadway production (now closed). (Seen on tour at the Wharton Center, East Lansing, MI 10-21-12).

Starring Rachel York in a simply wonderful performance, the dance-laden show veers from joke to song to dance with an ease that one usually doesn’t associate with this creaky old Cole Porter vehicle from the 30’s. Marshall directs with a good eye for modern-day audiences, and the show zips along in a manner that defies its 2:45 runtime. York is magnificent singing, dancing, pratfalling, and tapping her way through all those numbers.

Also in the tour, is UM grad Alex Finke who is excellent as Hope Harcourt. Billy is played with dancing and comic skill by Erich Bergen. When Erich and Alex are together, or when Erich and Rachel are together on stage, its sheer musical theater heaven. They are supported by an excellent cast, in fact, one which I like more than the original Broadway cast. Fred Applegate is particularly superb as Moonface.

That the show is touring with what looks like the original Broadway set (unless my eyes were mistaken) makes it even more dazzling. My original review of the show when seen in NYC is here: https://a2view.com/2011/12/19/broadway-reviews-bonnie-clyde-on-a-clear-day-follies-lysistrata-jones-war-horse/

I know, I know — most of my readers have either seen this show a million times, or like myself been IN it a million times…but this is a revival that is stunning in its simple, straight-forward “lets show them a good time” cheer; that the choreography is some of the best in recent years makes it a must see.

La Cage Aux Folles (Tour review) Detroit Fisher Theater September 26, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour, Detroit, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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La Cage Aux Folles rolled into town last night, and its a doozy. I saw this revival in NYC two seasons ago, and the tour is every bit as excellent as it was on Broadway. Winner of the tony for best-revival (among other awards) its easy to see the care that has gone into the tour of the show.

It’s great to see a tour that has as much crafstmanship go into into it as the original — in fact, except for the slightly larger scale of the sets, its virtually identical. George Hamilton plays Georges (so lovable you can let him get by with really poor vocal ability) and Christopher Sieber steals every scene he is in as Albin, quite an accomplishment following in the footsteps (or high heels?) of tony-winner Douglas Hodge on Broadway.

The entire ensemble is exceptional. If you read my earlier review of this revival, you know that the ensemble here is scaled down from the 24 or so in the original to just a handful — and that every one of the “la cage girls” is a hunk. If there is a single thing different about the tour that stands out, it is the intimacy of the theater — on Broadway, the show was so well integrated into the small house that you virtually felt like you were sitting IN the club. The Fisher is a bit less intimate, so the show feels a bit more stage-bound.

Some of the touches that made the NYC production so good are all here too — including “curtain/lobby warmer” Ms Lilli Whiteass making jokes, welcoming the crowd, and cracking a few Detroit jokes to the delight of the audience. This “bit” was added well along into the Broadway run, as tourists replaced locals in the audience. Its a great touch that remains fresh and funny on tour.

If you have seen La Cage before, you haven’t seen it like this. It deserved every Tony it got — and this tour cast does the show proud. Running now through October 7 at the Fisher Theater, Detroit.

See my original review here:   https://a2view.com/2010/07/31/memphis-la-cage-aux-folles-come-fly-away-broadway-reviews/

Summer 2012 Musical Theater Scorecard – SE Michigan August 21, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour, Community Theater, Detroit, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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So — now that the summer musical theater has pretty much ended in SE Michigan for the year, what was the scorecard?

Best of the Best:

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Croswell Opera House)

Les Miserables Student Edition (Croswell Opera House)

The Last Five Years (K&W Productions, Ann Arbor Musical Theatre Company)

Avenue Q (Croswell Opera House)

Wicked (Tour – Wharton Center)

Memphis (Tour – Wharton Center)

Les Miserables (Tour – Wharton Center)

Second Tier:

Legally Blonde (MSU Theater Department)

Legally Blonde (Centre Stage Jackson)

Legally Blonde (Croswell Opera House)

Fiddler on the Roof (Encore Musical Theater Company)

Nunsense (Encore Musical Theater Company)

Just Plain Bad:

Beauty and the Beast (Non-Equity Tour – Fisher Theater and Stranahan Theater)

All in all, not a bad summer season for local musical theater. The biggest surprise: the reworked Seven Brides at Croswell. The biggest disappointment: the multiple Legally Blondes, none of which lived up to their full potential (although Marlena Hilderley’s Elle at Croswell was sublime). Also, not reviewed but occurring were the many community theater productions around the area, including Annie at Dexter Community Players; the Anniversary Celebration at Chelsea Area Players; and many many others. Onto the fall local and touring season…Current recommendation: Anything Goes tour at Wharton Center — don’t miss buying your tickets now before they are all gone.


Beauty and the Beast (NETworks non-Equity tour) Review March 31, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Tour, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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It is the rare non-Equity tour that I review here. but NETworks production of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST has landed at the Stranahan Theater in Toledo, and this same company will be at the Fisher Theater in Detroit next week. The show is charming, but overall this is a mixed-bag production.

Note that this is NOT the original Disney tour with its stunning sets and costumes, but a completely re-designed version of the show that has its own charm, while missing the mark at some points.

The very hard-working cast, led by fresh Emily Behny as Belle and versatile Dane Agostinis as Beast, work hard to bring out the charm in what really is a lovely Disney script and score. There’s a bit too much slapstick and prat-falling by Logan Denninghoff’s Gaston and his comic foil Andrew Kruep’s Lefou. They are very good singer/actors stuck with some bad direction from Rob Roth. The rest of the cast are good in their respective roles, and give it 110% the entire 2 and a half hours. Yep, you heard right — the 2:20 show runs 2:30 here — some of that attributed to pauses and slapstick moments that grind the entire production to a halt for stretches at a time.

The requisite moments are lovely — “Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast” radiate warmth and fun. The dance break in Gaston is masterly with clanking tankards and precision choreography by Matt West. But in my eyes, the “big moment” that most Broadway theater goers will remember from the original production was when the massive castle wall swung toward the audience and the Beast, alone in a starlit night atop a massive granite wall, sang “If I Can’t Love Her” — a theater moment that had many an adult eye tearing up at its sheer beauty.  That doesn’t happen here. Stanley A. Meyer’s sparse open-frame metalwork platforms are too minimal to provide the grandeur needed in these sets, no matter how many pretty twinkling candles are flickering in their midst. It rotates. The stars come out. And you never once forget that you are looking at a stylized chunk of metal and hoping that Beast doesn’t lean against the railing with too much weight.

In another annoyance, there is a “sampler” type stitched background for the village-based scenes. Its colorful and clutters the stage so that even the lovely village homes and other pieces disappear into that clutter. It bothers me for another reason as well. I don’t recall American Sewing Samplers to be a staple of the French region in which the musical is based.

Its almost unfathomable to believe that Beast has been touring for (gulp) 17 years now. It’s a nice look at Disney book-driven story-telling, and the completely sold-out run at the Stranahan is a reminder of the need for this type of entertainment. Good thing Disney’s new Newsies is a hit — the world needs more family entertainment like this, and Disney knows how to make that happen. Too bad NETworks skimps on the details.

In a final note: SPOILED CHILDREN ALERT — I don’t know who to be angrier with — the 3-year old who sat behind me who talked through the entire production, or her mother, who kept answering all the kids questions and never once told her to shut up, no matter how many people tried to shush them. At best, they stayed quiet for a five-minute span while mother was shoving goldfish crackers and sippy-juice cartons in her mouth. For Heavens sake, if your child can’t sit still for an hour at a stretch, then they do not belong in a theater house of a Broadway tour yet. Enough said.

“Bring It On, the musical” tour (review), Chicago March 11, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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BRING IT ON, the new musical now on tour across North America aiming for Broadway is, in short. a very good musical waiting for a great musical to emerge. Seen at a Saturday Matinee at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace (the closest the show is coming to the area), the musical is none-the-less a standing-ovation, sold-out-house hit at the venue, and I have to admit, I and my theater partners had a great time.

Starring University of Michigan student Taylor Louderman, the cast is exceptional — in fact, they are better than the source material throughout. Most of the young (and hot) cast are on stage the entire two and a half hours. Comprised of Broadway veterans and a lot of new talent (much of it from the cheerleading/dance team/gymnastics circuits) the show concerns two rival cheerleading squads heading to regionals, and then nationals.

Any resemblance to the movie version of Bring It On stops at the name of the show and characters. This productions has an original book that combines equal parts Footloose, Legally Blonde, and every other teenage musical you have ever seen. It also borrows generously from All About Eve.  The libretto is by Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), the Music by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (In The Heights), and Lyrics by Miranda and Amanda Green (High Fidelity). The score is strong. The book needs a little tightening in Act I, but in all reality, from the moment the show leaves lily-white Truman High and heads to rival more-diverse Jackson High, the show takes flight (and often stays there, 20 feet off the ground).

The entire cast is energized by Andy Blankenbuehler’s direction and choreography. Let me come clean right here — I was a university cheerleader, and the moves and routines in this production are genuine, accurate, and well-adapted into musical numbers. The aerials (sometimes more than 20 feet in height) are higher than regulation of course, but they are breath-taking on stage. Otherwise, it pretty much represents what it is.

Co-billed with cheerleader Louderman (as Campbell) is the superb Adrienne Warren, as tough-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold Danielle. Also worthy of attention is overweight Bridget (an exquisite Ryann Redmond) and uberbitch Eva (Elle McLemore).  The men have less interesting roles (but much more to do). Charisma-free Jason Gotay needs to be replaced pre-Broadway as Randall. But watch the ensemble — for example Dahlston Delgado (himself a multi-award winner in cheering) is in virtually almost every scene. The other men and women of the ensemble change costumes as quickly as possible to become various members of the rival squads.

The set design by David Korins seamlessly integrates video, and the Lighting Design by Jason Lyons is eye-popping. The entire production is designed to move as quickly and as energetically as the performers on stage – often integrating live stage movement with video and screen movement across the stage. A particularly nice effect is the ticking countdown clock on-stage that merrily blinks to life 6:38 before the top of the show and counts down to the very first scene with dazzling effect — the crowd actually counts down the seconds during the last half minute, and it’s an exciting effect at 0:00 — in another brilliant example, one of the actors lets out an outraged scream up stage left and the video screens and lighting take it from there as the animated scream travels in concentric circles across the various elements of the set. Brilliant work.

So — here’s the scoop. The show does need some work prior to Broadway, in particular in giving the first half hour of the show a speed-pill to zip the action along; granted it’s used to introduce characters, but they are so paper-thin here that not that much exposition is required to get the ball rolling. The current effect is in essence that the first 25 minutes or so kind-of follows the original movie version of Bring It On; and then it suddenly veers off into its own delerious universe and never references the original again…so why start there?…

Second — this score is terrific. It really is. What isn’t so great is the constant interruption of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap into the songs, where exposition and a lyrical line would work better. Sure, its designed to offset the suburban school from the urban school, but it doesn’t work. The hiphop numbers themselves are excellent. Where rap was used to define specific character traits in In the Heights, here it just gets in the way and makes the whole thing feel fake. I suppose this is where my own bias comes into play, since I hate rap.

Finally, the script needs to give Louderman’s Campbell a touch more of heart. Kirsten Dunst in the movie had it to spare, and it made you feel something when the rival teams go at it in the climactic final sequence. Here, it’s a rather dull finish to what has been a fast race to the Nationals.

But let me conclude by saying that this show is virtually critic-proof. It has a built-in fan base already, and the rowdy, cheering, screaming teenagers at the performance I saw are probably indicative of the general reception this show will have nationwide and eventually on Broadway — Give the audience some funny characters to laugh at; some brilliant dance routines to cheer for; and some fine-looking technology to back it all up, and your target audience will eat this show up for years.

For more information, and tour schedule, see http://www.bringitonmusical.com/

Surprise! To fix “The Addams Family” musical get rid of Nathan Lane (review – tour – Wharton Center, East Lansing) February 4, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals.
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When I originally reviewed The Addams Family musical, I was among the minority that enjoyed it a lot. Now on tour it’s a much better show, and its not just because the script has been reworked.

The tour, currently passing through East Lansing at the Wharton Center, is significantly different from the show seen in pre-Broadway Chicago, and from a design standpoint very different from the Broadway Rubik’s Cube set that assembled and re-assembled itself in fulll view of the audience. It’s passable, but not as good design-wise.

But from an acting point of view its stunningly different, and who would have thought that getting rid of Nathan Lane would make such a huge difference — but it does. Douglas Sills makes for a superb Gomez, while Sara Gettelfinger holds her own as Morticia. The rest of the tour cast is excellent, and its a virtual who’s who of University of Michigan musical theater graduates.

I’m not sure why Broadway never warmed to the musical (although it did run 725 performances and 34 previews despite generally lackluster reviews). It’s funny, it’s tuneful, and the characters are outrageous. There’s a funny book (even if it is a direct rip-off of La Cage aux Folles), and plenty of topical references to keep you on your toes, and it’s all fun. Clearly, Broadway is not currently in the mood for fun — but audiences sure are, as witnessed at both performances I have see.

But, wow — let me get back to Douglas Sills — where Nathan Lane dropped lines, dropped his accent throughout the show, and generally mugged-it-up, Doug has a natural humor; a great voice; and no need to mug — the part plays itself, and he makes the most of his lithe body and quick facial expressions to change the character completely from what Lane brought (did not bring) to the part. There is also chemistry between he and Sara as Morticia, something that Lane never achieved with Bebe Neuwirth. Sills performance completely changes the entire feeling of the show, and the cast responds remarkably.

Are there problems — well, yeah. Besides the aforementioned dumbing-down of the set, there is the ongoing problem of an ensemble chorus that doesn’t do a heck of a lot but hover around in the background as ghosts. Nothing has been changed more from the original Chicago production than the use of the Ensemble, and I am not sure it is any type of improvement. A sequence in which they hide behind cutout trees is just embarrassing.

But those who have not seen The Addams Family will enjoy the show – all the small things that make it such a fun night out are still there (including the curtain tassel that falls off the act curtain and runs away). You could do a lot worse than to spend a few hours with this hilarious family.