"People have always been fascinated by the dark side of things," says actor Douglas Sills, one of the stars of The Addams Family, which opens this week at the Adrienne Arsht Center in downtown Miami. There's a jovial dread that surrounds this macabre creation, which began as a simple cartoon that satirized the American family in The New Yorker 73 years ago.
Charles Addams's drawings went from page to live television series, animated series, holiday special, Scooby-Doo appearance, and three films. Last year came the Broadway musical, which finally hits Miami this week for a limited run at the Arsht — just in time for Halloween.
Sills plays the slick-haired, double-breasted-pinstripe-suit-clad Gomez. You remember him. He's the family patriarch with the Transylvanian-style castle and insatiable appetite for his beloved wife, Morticia. "This is an important figure in American pop culture," Sills says enthusiastically when asked about stepping into the role made famous by actor John Astin in the 1964 TV series.
The Addams Family
By Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. Choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Directed and designed by Phelim McDermott. Through October 30 at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd.; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $27 to $74.
Perhaps drawn by the camp of the role, great actors have played Gomez. There was Raul Julia when the family hit the big screen in 1991, followed by Nathan Lane and Roger Rees onstage. "It made me eager to approach this character," Sills says.
The 51-year-old, Detroit-born actor is an interesting choice for Gomez. He is considered one of the finer Shakespearean actors around and is likely more comfortable reciting iambic pentameter than singing and dancing with ghouls and goblins. But Sills saw Gomez as a chance to separate himself from classical characters such as The Scarlet Pimpernel's Sir Percy Blakeney, which earned him a Tony nomination in 1998. "Most actors feel they're lucky when they get to make a leap like that," he says. "I was afraid of Hamlet. But in this case, because Gomez is what he is, it felt very freeing."
The Bard's characters, like Hamlet, often limit actors. Who wants to follow Laurence Olivier? But the charmingly weird Gomez — for whom crashing trains is a delightfully dastardly hobby — offers a chance to go nuts. The dude is a cartoon character, after all. He's crazy and kooky. He's married to a goth chick. He has a disembodied hand for a pet. So, as an actor, you can't get all tangled up in arched-brow gravitas. It's all eerie fun. "I felt like I could bring my own interpretation," Sills says, "basically because he is a cartoon."
An award-winning team put the Broadway version of the creepy clan together. The script was written by Jersey Boys creators Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, music and lyrics were penned by Andrew Lippa, and choreography comes courtesy of Sergio Trujillo.
In this story, daughter Wednesday has met a "normal" boy and plans to marry him. But she asks Gomez to do something he's never done before: keep the whole thing secret from his wife. Then the boy and his family come over to meet the parents. The plot is sort of The Bird Cage meets Vincent Price with an added note of wackiness.
Gomez simply wants to keep his daughter happy and not freak his potential in-laws out. As with every Addams Family story, the characters find themselves in everyday situations, but because they're morbid and ghoulish, the familiar becomes pleasantly odd.
The Addams Family has always acted as a kind of fun-house mirror of the American family archetype. In the original cartoon, the stories and situations poked fun at the perfect nuclear family. As the characters and narrative evolved, the plots reflected society's prejudices toward anything different. While the Addams Family members were the oddballs on the block — living adjacent to a cemetery, celebrating the macabre, gardening by snipping the heads off roses — they perceived themselves as normal. It was the neighbors who were the strange ones. Yet the Addamses accepted them all.
The whole thing, bizarrely, had a message of civil rights and equality.
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"The nice thing about Gomez is he's happy and he seems very normal," Sills says. "His hobbies, what he likes, the clothes he wears are very different, but his everyday life is very normal. He has children to raise, they go to school, he works on his marriage — all situations that everyone can relate to but with that wonderful juxtaposition of normalcy and oddity."
The Addams Family musical has been on an 11-city national tour. The timing in Miami is fortuitous. "Halloween has become such a big thing for us Americans," Sills says. "We love those times when we can turn things upside down. What's good is bad and what's bad is good. What's dark is light. All the things that are macabre become interesting and fun."
It's altogether ooky and, as Sills promises, an entertaining ride to get your Halloween spirit on.