Almost everyone who came of age in suburban America with a television set in the living room has a memory of "The Addams Family."
An older generation's memories of Gomez, Morticia, Lurch, Uncle Fester, Pugsley and Wednesday might spring from the original source of Charles Addams' single-panel cartoons in The New Yorker.
Either way, "The Addams Family" is truly an American family. Dour, droll, and delightfully dark, they taught readers, and later television audiences, the best way to crawl inside the finer wrinkles of a laugh that needs a bit of teasing before if finds its fullest voice.
"The Addams Family" will make its Salt Lake City premiere Nov. 13 at Capitol Theatre, running through Nov. 18.
"Growing up in New Jersey, I had an English teacher who, every day, would post a different New Yorker cartoon on his black board," said four-time Tony Award-winning screen and stage director Jerry Zaks. "He was really ahead of his time. After that I never forgot 'The Addams Family.'"
So when Zaks was approached to oversee a "nip and tuck" to the Broadway musical prior to its national tour, the director said he gave the project the utmost care and respect. Songs were jettisoned, while others were added, and the plot was tightened, adding tension in the depiction of the marriage of Gomez and Morticia.
Transforming the legacy of Addams' cartoon, and the television series and film version that followed, into a two and a half-hour musical was itself no easy task. The show was already a Broadway hit in 2010, but Zaks said his tune-up of the stage musical by Andrew Lippa, who wrote the music and lyrics, and Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, who penned the book helped audiences appreciate the work's dark humor.
So far, national audiences have responded in kind. Some go so far as attending theater performances dressed in their favorite member of the family.
Even if you already know "The Addams Family" through one or more of its many earlier incarnations, you don't know it as intimately as you could. After all, the musical boasts luminous sets throughout the continuum of blue, purple and black, which create visual effects bordering on illusion, Zaks said, and a full menu of songs to charm and bewitch.
"Whether you call Addams' humor 'dark' or 'gallows,' the bottom line is that his drawings always put a smile on your face," Zaks said during a phone interview from New York City. "The way he did that was to create characters that give voice to the darkest impulses everyone has."
Douglas Sills, who plays Gomez in the touring show, said that given the often understated humor of the 60s-era television series, audiences are surprised to find the musical to be laugh-out-loud funny. And since the characters are already so familiar to most people, no introductions are needed. The opening music speaks for itself.
"When the curtains part and I come out, it's almost as if a key has unlocked the warm and fuzzy underbelly of the audience," Sills said, speaking by phone while on tour in Seattle. "It's as if everyone's ready to be tickled. I'm constantly touched at how deeply this family has been inculcated into the American psyche."
As embraceable as each cast member is, however, purists may be relieved to learn that the reversals of decorum and aesthetics that made Addams' creations so popular lurk slyly in the background.
"Of course, I watched the show after school, like so many other kids of my generation," Sills said. But he also remembers reading the cartoons in his parents' issues of The New Yorker.
"They had an almost silent punch to them," Sills says. "I remember the moment when I finally got it. With their texture and layers in just one panel, I felt like a true sophisticate. It made me feel like a grown-up."
'The Addams Family'
The Broadway touring musical, an adaptation of the cartoon, TV and film versions, premieres this week in Salt Lake City.
When • Tuesday-Sunday, Nov. 13-18; Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 West 200 South, Salt Lake City
Info • $30-$65, at 801-355-2787 or arttix.org.
More info • Visit www.theaddamsfamilymusicaltour.com.