Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Adding Machine: A Musical

Travis Leland, Nick Tubbs, Mandy Wilson, Greta McAnany and Kelly Lester
In these difficult economic times, it sometimes seems that regional theatres are taking the easy way out—going for well-known properties with mass appeal over challenging pieces for which the audience is limited. The fact that, in this environment, the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble would even attempt the West Coast premiere of Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith's musical adaptation of Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine is certainly cause for optimism. Adding Machine: A Musical isn't an easy sell on any level: The plot is relentlessly depressing, the score is anything but hummable, and nobody on the stage is particularly likeable. If you produce Adding Machine, you do it because you believe in the piece and you want people to reflect on its themes, not because you think they'll be entertained.

The attempt alone, then, is to be applauded. But did they pull it off? To be sure, there are places where both the musical adaptation itself and this particular production of it work perfectly. The design elements, for starters, are exceptional. Kathryn Poppen's grey costumes and Adam Blumenthal's lighting help create the drab, lifeless world inhabited by Mr. Zero, our protagonist. And Schmidt and Loewith's score has some highs. In "Harmony, Not Discord," we get a pitch-perfect musicalization of the repetitive bookkeeping work that has dominated Mr. Zero's life for twenty-five years—as women rattle off numbers in rhythm, punctuated by stamping papers, and we hear the men's unspoken thoughts as they dream of a beer or a woman or anything to just escape the monotony. Also good is "Something to be Proud Of," the opening number in which Mrs. Zero henpecks her husband, at length, over discordant music which emphasizes her anger and the gulf between them. Kelly Lester gets through the scene-long song with a nice combination of a strong voice and a ton of attitude. Her, "I didn't pick much when I picked you," is the sort of insult that stays with you.

Another actor who shines is Rob Herring, as Shrdlu, the soon-to-be-executed murderer who looks forward to an afterlife in which he'll be justly punished for his sins. Herring has a lovely voice and Shrdlu has an interesting philosophy—the combination brings some life into a play that, until his entrance, revels in its lifelessness. Credit should also be given to the four-member ensemble who sing well together and also manage, in tiny little portraits, to create characters as unhappy, and unlikeable, as Mr. Zero himself.

It isn't all good. Clifford Morts can't quite get around the vocal demands of Mr. Zero. He's dead-on when he sings full-voice, and is even listenable when he talk-sings his way through a song, but when he sings at less than full strength, he tends to miss notes. But there are more fundamental problems going on here, and they appear to originate with the adaptation itself. The first half of the play, dwelling on Zero's empty existence and ending with his performance of one, inspired, human act, is successfully musicalized. The remainder, which takes place in the afterlife, is confused and unfocused. There is a lot of unmusicalized dialogue here—because there are clearly a lot of ideas Rice and his adapters are trying to put across. But they are difficult ideas and deserve more than a sum-it-all-up speech or a quick line after a song. And the very ending itself may leave audiences scratching their heads—not thinking about the concepts at issue in the show, but wondering what, exactly, just happened.

There are many little nit-picks one could mention—a character in the program is named Daisy Buchanan, but in the show, she's Daisy Devore; a period of time in the show is once mentioned as 20 years, and once as 25; and there were various prop malfunctions. Each is minor in its own way, but taken together they are symptomatic of an overall problem: this show simply isn't ready yet.

Adding Machine: A Musical runs through March 20, 2011, at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles. For tickets and information, see

The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in association with Sol Rabin and the Field Family Foundation presents Adding Machine: A Musical. Original Music by Joshua Schmidt; Libretto by Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt. Based on the play The Adding Machine by Elmer Rice. Produced and Directed by Ron Sossi; Music Director Alan Patrick Kenny; Scenic Designer Charles Erven; Lighting Designer Adam Blumenthal; Costume Designer Kathryn Poppen; Sound Designer Rosalyn Rice; Choreographer Natalie Labellarte; Makeup and Hair Design Catherine Joseph; Stage Manager Jennifer Palumbo; Prop Master Katherine S. Hunt; Graphic Design Luba Lukova.

Mr. Zero - Clifford Morts
Mrs. Zero - Kelly Lester
Chorus - Greta McAnany
Chorus - Travis Leland
Chorus - Nick Tubbs
Chorus - Mandy Wilson
Daisy Dorothea Buchanan - Christine Horn
Boss/Fixer/Charles - Alan Abelew
Shrdlu - Rob Herring

Photo: Ron Sossi

- Sharon Perlmutter

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