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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
But be forewarned. This is not your typical crowd pleasing musical. But then neither is Next to Normal, with its book about a seriously dysfunctional family; or The Slugbearers of Kayprol Islands which has been widely applauded for its animated scenery by cartoonist Ben Katcher but not as unanimously for its music and libretto; or The Blue Flower with its haunting Weil-flavored score and artfully interspersed video footage (see links below).
Adding Machine, the musical, is like none of the above either in terms of its book or its music. It's an adaptation rather than newly minted and the music, while not without bursts of melody, falls mostly within the genre of new music chamber opera. That said, Adding Machine IS like all of the above in the sense that it is ambitiously and uniquely staged and mostly, because it dares to risk being different from the most likely to succeed type of musical theater.
I'm not familiar with the physical space of the Next Theatre Company in Evanston, IL where it won the 2007 Joseph Jefferson Award for best new musical, but the small stage of the Minetta Theater certainly doesn't give any indication of the numerous surprising scenery changes that are revealed during the show's intermissionless 90 minutes. All you see is a grim, gray playing area with a few chairs. No sign of a place for the musicians. No hint of any bells and whistles. But fasten your seat belts, director Cromer and his talented stagecrafters support Rice's dispiriting look at a money motivated social hierarchy and the worker bees too timid to empower themselves to live lives that add up to something rather than nothing.
As mentioned, the musical gives an abstract expressionist flavor even to the realistic scenes establishing the metaphorically named Mr. Zero as a man imprisoned in the dreary existence of a bookkeeper working in a claustrophobic, dull office by day and being henpecked by a no longer appealing harridan of a wife at night. Thus the opening scene introduces us to Mr. and Mrs. Zero (Cyrilla Baer and Joel Hatch) together but sadly apart in an upright marital bed, with Mrs. Zero filling us in on her frustrating life. Her songologue is probably the most operatic musical number and like most modern operas sung in English, the lyrics are not always completey understandable. However, this applies only to this aria and Ms. Baer has a superb voice.
The story next moves to the Kafkaesque office where Zero and his fellow drones work like so many human machines. It's a riveting scene in every respect with music and characterization coming together beautifully. We get a sense of Mr. Zero's relationship (or rather non-relationship) with Daisy (Amy Warren), the worker who shares his desk and does equally mindless work. Though the play is an indictment of industry's reducing workers to faceless numbers, it also condemns those who've allowed themselves to be reduced to the lowest common denominator, like Mr. Zero. Thus, while he's not a particularly sympathetic character he's chillingly unforgettable.
There's a somewhat depressing timeliness to the seemingly emotionless Mr. Zero exploding into a burst of violence after being unceremoniously fired rather than promoted after twenty-five years of service. After all, it was just a week aso that I reviewed a contemporary new play, Unconditional, (not a musical) that revovled around a similar situation. At any rate, the consequences of Zero's reaction to being fired lead to a jail scene that is musical, dramatic and visual high point. In the subsequent move into the more surreal territory of the Elysian Fields, the more jaggedy new music sensibility takes its most melodic turn.
Hatch, Baer and Warren who also appeared in the original production are excellent, as are the newer cast members . But don't expect show biz good looks. These people look exactly like the universal everymen and women they're supposed to be, the sort you pass in the street without a second glance.
The unseen two piano plus percussion orchestra supports rather than competes with the voices which are miked, but subtly so. As dark and dour as the lives on display are, Cromer and his design team have created an atmosphere that allows the actors to convey their lingering longings for something more than lives without light, love or hope.
If Curtainup reviews featured numbered ratings, with the higher the number, the more favorable the rating, Adding Machine would run well above the number that identifies its antihero.
Links to other shows mentioned:
Next to Normal
Slug Bearers of Kayprol Island
Unconditional Other Elmer Rice works reviewed at Curtainup
Street Scene, the play (Berkshires, 2001)
Street Scene, the opera (Opera 2002)
Love Musik which featured lyrics by many, including Rice