Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

Adding Machine: A Musical

Bob De Vivo, Leigh Barrett, Brendan McNab, Liz Hayes, David Krinitt and Cheryl McMahon
Before there was musical theatre on Broadway, there was opera, dating back about four centuries. When Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote Show Boat in 1927, the first so-called book musical, they created a format for telling dramatic stories through music that owed a debt to the earlier art form. George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Leonard Bernstein's Candide were both Broadway productions that were considered American operas. In more recent decades, a number of musicals (among them Tommy, Les Misérables, Rent and Spring Awakening) have borrowed such operatic conventions as sung-through composition, leitmotifs and recitative in place of dialogue, telling their stories in more contemporary musical styles. Now add to the canon Adding Machine: A Musical, currently having its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company in the Roberts Studio Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Based on The Adding Machine, Elmer Rice's expressionistic 1923 drama, this award-winning Off-Broadway musical by composer Joshua Schmidt, with libretto by Schmidt and Jason Loewith, employs an eclectic score to establish a unique voice that is more opera than musical theatre. Commencing with an often dissonant seven-minute aria in which Mrs. Zero (Amelia Broome) harangues her husband, the protagonist Mr. Zero (Brendan McNab), the song styles fit hand in glove with the messages they convey, no easy task. This is a difficult story to tell (in song or otherwise) because so much goes on in the characters' heads, but using a ballad to show love, or a rousing gospel number to express religious fervor, works better than mere dialogue.

Mr. Zero has labored as a pencil-pushing numbers cruncher for 25 years, showing up every day, and is expecting a promotion as a reward for his loyalty. His one small joy in the workplace is an unexpressed fondness for his assistant, Daisy Devore (Liz Hayes). When he is informed that he is being replaced by an adding machine, the heretofore placid Zero murders his boss. Once he is carted off to jail, he erupts in song, ranting about how unfair his life has been. While awaiting execution, he meets Shrdlu (John Bambery), a young man who went off while carving a leg of lamb for Sunday dinner and killed his "sainted mother." Shrdlu believes in a vengeful God and warns Zero of the horrible justice they will receive after death.

To their surprise, both men end up in a pleasant place, the Elysian Fields where only the most favored dwell. Zero's second surprise is finding Miss Devore, whose accidental-on-purpose death came shortly after his own, and being given the chance for romance and a sweet afterlife. For Shrdlu, it is the ultimate freedom after living in fear of a rigid, punishing higher power, but Zero is repulsed by the apparent lack of standards in this place and runs away from it. He finds comfort with an adding machine in a quiet room where no one will bother him and he can be alone with his numbers. That is until The Fixer (an authoritative Sean McGuirk) shows up and tells him the facts of life ... and death.

There are many messages in Adding Machine and I don't want to give them all away, but the original play was a diatribe against capitalism as a dehumanizing machine. In this updated version, Loewith and Schmidt assert that the individual has choices and must accept responsibility for one's destiny.  Mr. Zero is given three chances and never chooses redemption, as if he is most comfortable with the devil that he knows. It's hard to watch him continue to make the same mistakes, but he just doesn't get it. The world changes and moves forward, but he can't ... or won't.

Paul Melone's vision for this production is compelling and often clever. With the able assistance of his designers—Susan Zeeman Rogers (Scenic Design), Jeff Adelberg (Lighting Design) and Aaron Mack (Sound Design)—the SpeakEasy stage is imaginatively transformed into an uncomfortable home, a gulag-like office, a stark prison, an ethereal heaven and an assembly line machine. Music Director Steve Bergman on piano, Matthew Raskopf on percussion and David Rose on synthesizer do a masterful job of laying down the challenging score for a company of talented voices. Operating as a Greek Chorus of sorts in multiple roles are Leigh Barrett, Cheryl McMahon, Bob De Vivo and David Krinitt.

McNab definitely carries the show and is up to the task. He sings beautifully and captures the many sides of Zero, from the browbeaten, henpecked husband, to the cynical, frustrated employee, to the inmate feeling freed from his burdens. Broome makes a very nasty shrew, albeit with a crystalline tone, and Hayes sells us on Devore's duality, equally adept at showing her joy and disappointment. Bambery's Shrdlu is a mix of soft-spoken penitent and murderous menace with a powerful voice. Although Adding Machine is a dark story, there is humor inherent in some of the situations and the cast is able to eke out the laughs hidden among the lyrics, a feat much appreciated by the audience.

Following the press opening performance, Loewith participated in a talkback with the audience, and Schmidt will be present for the matinee on Sunday, March 21st at 3 pm. Loewith shared his assessment that their show is "an antidote to the traditional musical" in that it is neither cheerful nor shallow, but rife with substance and mood. I agree that it is not a traditional musical, and if that is your cup of tea, Adding Machine: A Musical may be harder for you to swallow.

Adding Machine: A Musical, performances through April 10, 2010 at SpeakEasy Stage Company; Box Office 617-933-8600 or Original Music by Joshua Schmidt, Libretto by Jason Loewith & Joshua Schmidt. Based on the play The Adding Machine by Elmer Rice. Paul Melone, Director; Steven Bergman, Music Director; David Connolly, Choreographer; Susan Zeeman Rogers, Scenic Design; Gail Astrid Buckley, Costume Design; Jeff Adelberg, Lighting Design; Aaron Mack, Sound Design; Victoria S. Coady, Production Stage Manager; Jayscott Crosley, Assistant Stage Manager.

Cast: John Bambery, Leigh Barrett, Amelia Broome, Bob De Vivo, Liz Hayes, David Krinitt, Sean McGuirk, Cheryl McMahon, and Brendan McNab.

Photo: Mark L. Saperstein  

- Nancy Grossman

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