Stage Door: The Scottsboro Boys, The Addams Family

06/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Scottsboro Boys is an astounding production. In the guise of a minstrel show, it tells the tragic story of nine black teens falsely charged with raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. Tantamount to a legal lynching, the outcome, in the Jim Crow South, was inevitable.

That miscarriage of justice is recounted at the Vineyard Theater in a smart, provocative way. The music and lyrics are by John Kander and Fred Ebb, book by David Thompson; all have employed the minstrel convention to great effect -- revealing prejudice against the defendants as well as their famed lawyer Samuel S. Leibowitz, who argued in both Alabama and the Supreme Court to reverse the guilty verdicts.

Despite a later recanting, the Alabama prosecutor appealed to racial and religious prejudice, asking the jury "whether justice would be bought and sold with Jew money from New York?" The Scottsboro Boys, which covers the period from 1931-1937 and records the endless legal torment, is a potent history lesson.

The musical is narrated by Interlocutor (a well-cast John Cullum), nattily dressed in a white suit. He is surrounded by the Scottsboro Boys, all terrific, and two minstrels, Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon), who expertly play various roles.

The show employs Southern patter, heartfelt exchanges and caricature to underscore the cruelty and insanity the defendants endure. The score adroitly mines jazz, blues and gospel music, which perfectly encapsulates the Depression-era atmosphere. The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent; Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson, who defies his captors, gives a strong, nuanced performance.

Susan Stroman, who directed The Producers with panache, has used her considerable skills to illustrate more with less. The set is almost Brechtian bare, save for a few chairs that double as a prison cell. She gets the pacing just right and moving performances from her cast. Scottsboro Boys will leave you shattered; it's the definition of inspired theater.

The Addams Family at the Lunt-Fontanne will leave you confused. What's striking is the dichotomy between the two acts; the first is funny, barbed and cohesive. The second is sloppy and sentimental. It's as if every principle's contract read: I must have a solo in Act 2 -- whether it enhances the plot line or not.

Still, the famously bizarre characters are endearing, and expertly played by a stellar cast: Gomez (a delightful Nathan Lane), Morticia (a slyly droll but underutilized Bebe Neuwirth), Grandma (Jackie Hoffman), Uncle Fester (a sweet Kevin Chamberlin) and Wednesday (a wonderful Krysta Rodriquez). They embrace their wacky roles with glee, aided by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch's perfect set, and Natasha Katz's lighting, which augments the designers' creative vision. (Per The New York Times, McDermott and Crouch, Addams' original directors, kept the credit, but Jerry Zaks, billed as creative consultant, revamped the show.)

Unfortunately, despite many entertaining aspects, it remains a work in progress.

The music and lyrics are fine, rather than spectacular. The major flaw is the book. It whitewashes Charles Addams' macabre spirit. The Addams -- Gomez, Morticia, Pugsley and Wednesday -- are familiar to audiences, so is Cousin Itt and Thing, who make brief cameos. Like the original cartoons, which morphed into a beloved '60s TV show and two '90s films, the big draw has always been quirky, dark humor.

Instead, we get a saccharine teen romance: 18-year-old Wednesday is inexplicably in love with Lucas, a banal Ohio boy. He's got conservative parents, Terrence Mann and Carolee Carmello, who see themselves as the real Americans and the Addams (a stand-in for New Yorkers) as strange. When Morticia reluctantly agrees to have them for dinner, the fireworks, such as they are, ignite.

This lame story can only have one result -- to transform the singular Addams clan into a maudlin troupe. When Gomez sings to his daughter: "In every heaven, there's a little bit of hell," he's right: The Addams Family is in script purgatory. Gomez, Morticia, Pugsley and Wednesday do not age! They do not marry nonentities from swing states! They do not get gooey!

What the show needs is Paul Rudnick, who wrote Addams Family Values; he delights in intelligently marrying artifice to outrageous. There is much potential here, but the hardworking Broadway cast -- and Charles Addams -- deserve better.