Just like the Broadway production of Hairspray, Know Theatre of Cincinnati's current staging of Adding Machine opens with the audience seeing a bed from a view from above. This is where any similarities between the two shows end, however. While Hairspray is a celebratory tale of joy and love, Adding Machine is a bleak story of despair and the dark underbelly of capitalism and the human condition. Know Theatre provides a thrilling and exceedingly worthwhile production that demonstrates the piece's daring, different, and dark take on the American dream.
Adding Machine is a musical adaptation of the 1923 classic play The Adding Machine by Elmer Rice, and tells of Mr. Zero, an office drone who has spent the last twenty-five years adding figures. When he loses his job after being replaced by a new mechanical adding machine, Mr. Zero kills his boss. After the execution, Mr. Zero finds that the afterlife isn't what he expected or wanted, and is forced to face an eternity repeating his mistakes.
The libretto by Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith paints a brutal, unsentimental portrait of mankind's struggle for meaning and peace. The book is remarkable for its conciseness, and is both savage and satirical in its humor. While the ending is abstract, the piece has enough thought-provoking moments to fill a week of evenings, and requires its audience to give their full attention and focus.
With music by Mr. Schmidt and lyrics by Schmidt and Loewith, the score is an eclectic mix of musical styles. The opening numbers use insistent, almost hypnotic rhythms layered with discordant melodies that create music that is intelligent and impressively unexpected, yet at the same time dissonant and capturing the harsh tone of the characters and story. The lyrics are witty, urbane, efficient, and apt to the characters. While several songs contain the pulsating and modernistic feel found in the opening tunes, others skillfully capture different styles and are more in the traditional musical theater form. Song highlights include "In Numbers," which captures the monotony of Mr. Zero's job in music and lyrics; the pastiche "I'd Rather Watch You"; a holy roller spiritual number "The Gospel According to Shrdlu"; and "Daisy's Confession," one of the finest showtunes in recent years.
Know Theatre supplies an excellent staging of Adding Machine. Director Michael Burnham creates and sustains a tension-filled atmosphere even before the audience is seated. He also uses the entire performance space, including the aisles, to draw the audience into the piece. Musical Director Alan Patrick Kenny energetically leads a three-piece band, and has prepared the singers admirably in tackling this challenging score.
Robert Pavlovich aptly embodies Mr. Zero with a detached and disengaged demeanor that explodes with a menacing rage. Aretta Baumgartner is just right as his nagging wife, and Liz Vosmeier is extremely endearing as Mr. Zero's sad-sack co-worker Daisy who kills herself to follow him into the afterlife. As one of Mr. Zero's fellow Death Row inmates, Rick Roedersheimer suitably conveys both a perversely excited anticipation of being punished in hell for his sins, and an extreme disappointment when he isn't. Joshua Murphy tackles some of the piece's larger dialogue portions with skill while covering several roles. Beth Harris, Ken Early, Chris Wesselman and Blythe Walker complete the talented on-stage ensemble. Each cast member displays strong singing vocals, especially given the difficulty of the piece, and they provide astonishingly committed performances for a show that certainly requires it.
A sparse, industrial steel set, with pulleys and sliding metal frames, is inventively used as supplied by Andrew Hungerford. Mr. Hungerford is also responsible for the stark and varied lighting. The costumes by Susan Toy are period-appropriate and attractive, and the sound at Know has never been better than heard here, as overseen by Doug Borntrager.
Adding Machine is as brilliant as it is surreal. The story and score cohesively tell a gripping and compelling tale of angst and the search for happiness amid a sea of discontent. Know Theatre of Cincinnati is up to the challenge in all respects.
Adding Machine runs through March 6, 2010. Call (513) 300-KNOW for tickets or more information, or visit www.knowtheatre.com.