Review – Next Theatre’s "The Adding Machine"

AddingMachine---06-web-733116 The Adding Machine: A Chamber Musical is an intriguing, hard-to-pigeonhole piece of musical theatre. With music by Josh Schmidt and a libretto by Schmidt and Jason Loewith, The Adding Machine is a through-sung work with glimpses of Sondheim’s Passion, Guettel’s A Light in the Piazza and LaChuisa’s Wild Party. Nonetheless, it is set apart from these examples through its use of comprehensible melodies on top of layered dissonances; changing time signatures juxtaposed with sharply-syncopated choral chants. In its world-premier, Evanston’s Next Theatre Company has taken a noteworthy risk by commissioning and presenting this piece. Based on a rarely-produced 1923 play of the same name by expressionist playwright Elmer Rice, the show mostly works. But there are some caveats, all in the second half of the show, that keep The Adding Machine from realizing its full potential.

Though there is no intermission, the play is comprised of two distinct acts, delineated by the death of the main character, Mr. Zero (artfully played by the talented Joel Hatch). In the first section of The Adding Machine, the world is engulfed in numbers. The main character, Mr. Zero, works as an accountant. Mrs. Zero (wonderfully sung by Cyrilla Baer) is continually unhappy, contemplating the clichéd conclusion that Mr. Zero really is a zero, and she never should have married him.

AddingMachine---01-727264 Undoubtedly the work’s most mesmerizing section takes place in the second scene of the well-delineated first act. Mr. Zero is at work, sitting at the first of three tables, methodically and laboriously writing down numbers fed to him by his assistant Miss Devore (Amy Warren). As the chorus, sitting at tables behind him, hauntingly chants number after number (infusing clever asides, their brains wandering away from numbers and instead to thoughts of beer and girls), Zero relays that today is his 25th anniversary at the company, and he’s sure he will get a promotion. The boss, the stoic Mr. Charles (Michael Vieau) shows up. But instead of promoting him, Zero is canned, being told that with the advent of the adding machine, his job can now be done by high school girls at a sliver of his salary. (Echoing the present day’s outsourcing of jobs to other countries, where they are paid a fraction of our salaries). That evening, at a dinner party thrown by Mrs. Zero, with Mr. and Mrs. One (Rosalind Hurwitz and Steve Welsh) and the Two’s (Toni Inzeo and Kevin Mayes) in attendance, her husband is arrested for murdering his boss. What follows is a clever scene in prison on death row, where Zero meets the disturbing Shrdlu (Ian Westerfer), who has killed his mother by cutting her throat instead of the lamb that his mother has made for her son’s dinner. (i.e., mom turns into the sacrificial lamb?)

The second section, occurring after Zero has been put to death, falls flat, the storyline veering away from any kind of worthy conflicts and – as my father told me when trying in vain to teach me how to swing a baseball bat – no follow-through. We are supposedly in heaven, Shrudlu, the mom-killer, is there. Zero, too, is present. And Zero’s assistant, Mrs. Devore, just happens to also be there. Zero and Devore soon realize that they are in love. All this unexplained oddness abets an unfortunately dissatisfying ending.

The singing is mostly excellent. The characters have lovely, adaptable voices, and the music director, Jeremy Ramey, has done a great job blending the cast’s instruments, successfully honing the difficult syncopations of the choir. But a few of the main characters, specifically Zero and Shrdlu, do not have the chops to sing this discordant and often operatic score. In the beginning this is okay, as their wavering voices match their character’s woes. But this vocal crudeness becomes a problem near the end when these same characters are no longer suffering.

The design team has done a notable job, with the highest honor given to Keith Parham, the lighting designer. His design is dead-on, thoroughly matching and enhancing the dynamics of the story – dark and ominous in the first half and utopian in the second. In one remarkable scene, as Zero is entering heaven, the lights are cast in such a way that projects Zero as having wings. As the lighting changes, though, it is revealed that these “wings” are in fact just a coat thrown over his shoulder. This is some of the best lighting work seen in recent years.

Overall, if you’re an avid fan of new musical works, works that push the boundaries of stereotypical musical theatre, The Adding Machine is worth seeing – even when taking into consideration the aforementioned problems. Indeed, the accounting scene alone is worth the price of the ticket. The score and orchestrations are exemplary, matching much of what you’d hear on Broadway. If only the show was just about the first act, it would be highly recommended. Unfortunately this is not the case.

Rating: «««

One Response

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