Wednesday Addams and Co. Haunt Leach Center for the Performing Arts

Dance and theater instructor Melissa Zaremba’s Middle School students were ecstatic in November 2023 when she told them what piece they’d be performing for their annual musical that coming March. A comedy that celebrates the wackiness in every family, The Addams Family “feels particularly relevant for these kids right now,” according to Zaremba. 

Originally the macabre brainchild of New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams, and subsequently transformed into a 1960s television series, several movies, and various animated reboots, the eccentric Addams clan is once again at the forefront of the cultural imagination with the hit Netflix series Wednesday, which chronicles the coming of age of the family’s brilliant, psychic teenage goth.

“All our Middle Schoolers get the context of the Netflix show, which means they’ve already bought into the concept of the musical,” explains Zaremba. “The story is different, of course, but it’s still such a fun opportunity for them to play something that’s so far away from real life. It’s easy for this age to step into the dark humor and the elaborately gothic costumes and makeup.”

Just as in the contemporary streaming series, which stars Jenna Ortega as the death-obsessed Wednesday, the musical centers around the teenage girl’s changing understanding of love, good, and evil. When she falls for a sweet, smart young man from a respectable family, Wednesday confides to her father, Gomez, and begs him not to tell her mother, Morticia. The secret sets off a chain reaction of realization and acceptance on the fateful night the Addams host a dinner for Wednesday’s “normal” boyfriend and his parents.

From left, Gomez Addams (Grayson Riek), Lucas Beineke (Henry Robinson), and Wednesday Addams (Saiya Langefels)

The story, which sees both Gomez and Morticia, as well as the lonely Uncle Fester, find true connection alongside Wednesday herself, deals with themes that are familiar to all Middle Schoolers and their families. As Zaremba spells out, “Is there something wrong with me? Am I just growing and changing? What does it mean to feel love? The Addams Family is a wonderful vehicle for investigating all of these questions.”

Brave enough to be an Addams

A strong contingent of young performers in Zaremba’s 7th/8th Grade Musical class were the ideal group to bring The Addams Family’s messages to life. The students, rehearsing all of their lines, song-and-dance numbers, and stage blocking mostly during regularly scheduled 45-minute blocks in their six-day class rotation, had to work swiftly and efficiently to prepare for performances. “It’s both amazing and challenging for these young people to do so much in so little time,” says Zaremba. “Since it’s a part of their normal day, rather than after school, they have to quickly switch from doing algebra to singing and dancing.”

“But I really love the daytime model we have at Colorado Academy,” she goes on. “It means a lot more kids get to participate than if rehearsals were all held after school.”

Among the cast are students who may never have played a role or been in a performance before, singing and dancing alongside performers who may claim years of voice and stage experience with Dr. Kevin Padworski, CA’s Vocal Music Director. “It’s a hard thing to get up and perform in front of anyone, let alone your peers,” Zaremba notes. “I’m proud of all of these students for being brave enough to do that.”

Uncle Fester (Rachel Meltzer, center) with the Addams family ancestors

Members of the tech crew had their own mountains to climb. While animated digital backgrounds and a pre-recorded score made some aspects of the production easier, students in the Middle School Technical Theater class still had to devote weeks to constructing large set pieces such as the Addams family crypt and the spinning torture rack that Wednesday uses to torment her brother, Pugsley. “I knew from the beginning the torture rack would be one of the stars of the show,” says Zaremba.

Amazon’s ability to quickly deliver almost anything turned out to be almost as impactful. Zaremba sourced numerous costumes for lead roles, Wednesday’s bow-and-arrow set, and even a remote-controlled rat (nicknamed “Fluffy” by the cast and crew) from the online retailer. 

But one prop key to the musical’s story was custom-made with help from technical theater gurus James Meehan and Ian Marzonie, who used the department’s new 3D printer to craft the huge ceremonial chalice that’s used during the climactic dinner party scene. Zaremba “bejeweled” the creation just in time for dress rehearsals.

Alice Beineke (Mika Chesnutt) holds the family chalice.

She also recruited Senior tech veterans of numerous Upper School productions to help with construction, stage management, lighting, and sound. The presence of older student mentors to guide the Middle School crew was a tremendous boon that Zaremba hopes will be a model for the future.

Creating something special

An experienced professional dancer and choreographer as well as theater instructor and director, Zaremba came into this production having already choreographed The Addams Family with the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre. Teaching Seventh and Eighth Graders the dance steps to accompany songs such as “Fester’s Manifesto,” “Wednesday’s Growing Up,” and “Crazier than You” was one of the highlights of the class. 

“There was so much room to have fun and be creative with this musical,” Zaremba recounts. “The opening line-dance is a great example: Once the kids had learned it, they got together and did it for fun at the start of every rehearsal.” 

Zaremba was able to create a moody, nighttime atmosphere for one of Uncle Fester’s moonlit solos by customizing semi-opaque umbrellas with upward-facing flashlights. And massive quantities of dry ice were used to add gloomy ground fog to numerous scenes. “The goal was, even if you don’t have a million-dollar budget, how do you create something special for Middle Schoolers that looks visually sophisticated?”

Perhaps most special of all, Zaremba adds, is that the show’s successful two-night run can be traced back to a full class roster open to any Seventh or Eighth Grader: There were no cuts, and everybody played a part.

“The fact that The Addams Family has a good 11 or 12 named roles—all with their own singing parts or dialogue—really meant that everyone got to feel that they were contributing.”

Even more: Everyone got their chance to step into the frightening unknown—whether the stage or the famous Addams darkness—to discover that answers might just be illuminated there, and that love, acceptance, and hope are not so far out of reach after all.