Peter Marks reviews the Kennedy Center’s ‘Addams Family’

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From the memory-jogging opening moment (ba-da-da-dum snap-snap!) of the aggressively mediocre musical version of "The Addams Family," audiences know they are in the embrace of that classic American genre, the brand extension.

The franchise that began with the bracingly macabre wit of Charles Addams's New Yorker cartoons and grew progressively sillier through a mid-'60s sitcom and a pair of early-'90s movie comedies receives in this age of commercial inevitability a Broadway treatment that makes the prior adaptations seem, by comparison, like unerring genius.

Lacking stylistic coherence, a well-developed plot or even catchy tunes, this touring incarnation of "The Addams Family," taking up residence in the Kennedy Center Opera House through the end of July, relies for chuckles almost entirely on flickers of spectator recognition of trademark shtick. Uncle Fester's light-bulb-in-the-mouth, Lurch's Frankenstein's monsterishness, Cousin Itt's sight-gag cameo are the default comic inspirations here. The giggles with which they are greeted remind you that laughter is at the most basic level a reflex.

What this vehicle is doing at a cultivated nonprofit like the Kennedy Center, and not in a space whose entire rationale is raking in dough (even if "The Addams Family," on the back of its then-star Nathan Lane, had a merely respectable Broadway run) is a matter of some concern. Is the institution a showcase for what it regards as the best in the performing arts, or is it simply a big concrete case for shows?

In a city as sophisticated and artistically diverse as Washington — and with a large commercial house, the National, engaged most of the time in generating cobwebs — the Kennedy Center need not be a hog, feasting on even the second-rate stuff Broadway sends on the road. To its credit, the center has booked for substantial stays in recent summers such vital modern musicals as " Next to Normal " and " Spring Awakening ," and amplified the opportunities for sharp, locally bred work such as the just-closed revue " First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb ."

One feels for the center staffers who have to try to figure out what to offer theatergoers at times when such enlightened fare is not available. Still, on any list of imperfect entertainment options, this production, with tickets ranging from $ 39 to $ 115, does not qualify as a truly competitive alternative to "None of the Above."

Not even the estimable exertions of Douglas Sills, who plays Gomez Addams (and is a better fit in the role than Lane was) can enjoyably fuse the creative team's mismatched sensibilities. The enterprise feels as if assembled by factions that barely ended up speaking. The program notes that Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch — devisers of the ghoulish New York hit "Shockheaded Peter" — provided "original direction," but describes the "entire production" as being "under the supervision" of longtime Broadway director Jerry Zaks. While the musical's puppetry is ascribed to puppet virtuoso Basil Twist, subject of a recent Washington mini-festival, his imagistic whimsy seems to inform only one sequence, Uncle Fester's second-act song, "The Moon and Me."

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