Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Adding Machine"

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note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Larry Stark

"Add1ng Machine"
a musical

Libretto by Jason Loewith & Joshua Schmidt
Music by Joshua Schmidt
Based on "The Adding Machine" by Elmer Rice

Directed by Paul Melone
Musical Direction by Steve Bergman
Choreography by David Connolly

Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley
Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg
Scenic Design by Susan Zeeman Rogers
Sound Design by Aaron Mack
Properties Supervisor Lauren Duffy
Production Director Laura E. Smith
Assistant Stage Manager Jayscott CrosleyRobin Amendola
Production Stage Manager Victoria S. Coady

Mr. Zero........................Brendan McNab
Mrs. Zero.......................Amelia Broome
Daisy Dorothea Devore...............Liz Hayes
Shrdlu...........................John Bambery
The Boss/The Fixer/Charles.......Sean McGuirk
Mrs. One/Mae/Prisoner's Wife....Leigh Barrett
Mrs. Two/Betty/Matron..........Cheryl McMahon
Mr. One/Prisoner..................Bob De Vivo
Mr. Two/Prison Guard............David Krinitt

Piano...........Steve Bergman
Percussion....Matthew Raskopf
Synthesizer........David Rose
Conductor.......Steve Bergman

Generally, the word "musical" is followed by the pillow-word "comedy" here in America, and most musicals create laughter. When creations edge toward "serious musicals" they may be respected, but rarely performed --- like Sondheim's "Passion"; even his "Assassins" which is screamingly funny but in a mordant, satirical way, was in limbo for years after its first production. So it's amazing that such a serious show as "Add1ng Machine, the musical" ever got produced in the first place; people have called it the least commercially successful Tony-Award winner. But SpeakEasy Stage Company has brought it to Boston in an exquisite production in which musical-comedy stallwarts like Leigh Barrett and Cheryl McMahon have signed on as multi-character members of the chorus. It's a love-it/hate-it show --- brilliant, unforgettable, but incredibly harsh.

Composer Joshua Schmidt has set Elmer Rice's classic expressionist drama to a jagged, saw-toothed score. In fact, the shriek of a buzz-saw ripping into lumber comes to mind occasionally in the initial scenes. The dissonant, percussion-heavy score exquisitely accompanies Rice's original cries of protest, and the intricate score is everywhere lyrically expressive. (The Music Director, Steven Bergman, once collaborated making a musical about Jack the Ripper; despite a stunning "workshop production" here in Boston that show proved too dark for Broadway.) Finally, when Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith wrote the words for this musical, they elected to ditch the words "Book & Lyrics" and instead use "Libretto by" --- signalling their more serious (and through-sung), "operatic" intentions.

But --- what happens in this show? Well, first of all, though there is an adding-machine, the protagonist Mr. Zero (Brendan McNab) actually IS an adding-machine. At work he is read numbers by a young clerk and, for 25 years, he added them daily. When the boss (Sean McGuirk) gives him not a promotion but a dismissal, all Hell breaks loose --- literally! Imprisoned and executed for a murder he loudly insists was justified, Mr. Zero finds himself in a Buddhist nether-world where, free of physical reality and of social mores he can have what he thinks he wants --- an eternal love-affair with his young female clerk Daisy Dorothea Devore (Liz Hayes) --- but reverts to work he has done in thousands of other past lives: he adds figures with his stub of a pencil, and will eventually be reborn, as a drab, unthinking adding machine yet again.

Elmer Rice's '20s rage at "the system" and "those in charge" ring through every syllable and every note of this unrelenting musical, and cast and design-crew are magnificent. As the cliche-clenching Mrs. Zero Ameilia Broome starts the show with accounts of conversation among wives, spattered with complaints of her husband's short-comings. There's a party with other cliche-ridden friends, a pair of fellow prisoners on death-row (John Bambery & Bob De Vivo) each with different explanations of The Big Picture. Three pairs of accountants sit adding figures in a trench across the center of the stage, skewering each receipt ritually on a spike. Each has a moment of reverie where the mind dreams while the body plods through the job. The after-life is played out initially with a billowy white backdrop, until the number-splashed world of the-way-things-are reasserts itself.

Many may decide to ignore this unique show, and many who see it may emerge disappointed. An appreciation of modernist music and a willingness to see our world through fresh 1920s insights will make others agree that "Add1ng Machine the musical" is unforgettable.

( a k a larry stark )

"Add1ng Machine" (12 March - 10 April)
@ Boston Center foR The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON MA
1(617) 482-3279

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide