“I’m sorry to lose an old and faithful employee, but you see, in an organization like this, efficiency is the first consideration. You will, of course, draw your salary for the full month. We couldn’t do anything less for such a valued and loyal employee. And I’ll direct my secretary to give you an excellent letter of recommendation.”
“Wait a minute. Let me get this right. You mean … you’re letting me go?”
No, this isn’t dialog from Up In The Air, the movie that had George Clooney flying around the country firing people. It’s from Adding Machine: A Musical, adapted from a 1923 play by Elmer Rice. Talk about timeless!
Rice’s The Adding Machine centers on a certain Mr. Zero, a sad sack of a man who finds himself after twenty-five years of old-style accounting suddenly replaced by a machine. Unlike the pink-slipped victims of Up In The Air, however, most of whom a slick Clooney was able to convince that a change would do them good, Mr. Zero snaps and kills his boss.
Clearly Adding Machine: A Musical has other intentions than being your average, everyday musical. Winner of the Outer Critics Circle, Louise Lortel, and Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Awards for Best New Musical, Adding Machine: A Musical (libretto by Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt) is a surreal fantasy with a score that makes Sondheim’s complex melodies and rhythms seem like old-fashioned show tunes by comparison.
Since the adjective “surreal” generally makes this reviewer want to turn and run, it may come as a surprise to StageSceneLA readers that I loved every one of Adding Machine: A Musical’s dreamlike, even nightmarish, moments and composer Schmidt’s complex, often dissonant melodies. Under Ron Sossi’s inspired direction, and featuring a uniformly superb cast, Adding Machine: A Musical’s West Coast Premiere at the Odyssey Theater turns out to be about as exciting a musical event as they come.
Like Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa, composer Schmidt take a while getting used to, but the more you listen, the more his music resounds and resonates. Mrs. Zero’s nagging, cacophonous “Something To Be Proud Of” sets the mood from the get-go, followed by the quite extraordinary “Harmony, Not Discord,” entirely spoken by a quintet of performers, each at a different speed and rhythm, yet all somehow blending into one powerful whole. Then there’s “In Numbers,” with its syncopated harmonies, “The Party” which somehow amidst its racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic slurs recalls the talk-songs of Meredith Willson, and “A Pleasant Place” with an almost angelic chorale singing backup to a post-execution Mr. Zero.
Amidst these weird yet wonderful concoctions, out pop several quite hummable show stoppers, like the Kander-&-Ebb-in-Chicago-mode-esque “I’d Rather Watch You,” the catchy three-quarter time “Ham And Eggs,” and “The Gospel According to Shrdlu,” which seems straight out of a Southern Baptist revival meeting.
Charles Erven’s abstract, deliberately dingy gray scenic design sets the expressionist mood from the get-go, aided and abetted by Kathryn Poppen’s monochromatic costumes, Adam Blumenthal’s striking lighting, and Rosalyn Rice’s dramatic sound design, with its strident factory whistles and perfect mixing of musical instruments and unamplified voices.
Working in tandem, director Sossi and choreographer Natalie Labellarte keep the cast moving in ever-varied patterns, particularly the four-member ensemble, who execute numerous roles while serving as a kind of Greek chorus.
Performances are all-around sensational, beginning with Clifford Mort’s angry, bigoted, resentful Mr. Zero, whose enraged roars alternate with near-operatic arias sung in a rich, powerful baritone. Abandoning vanity, Kelly Lester disappears into Mrs. Zero’s faded shell, sings in a crystal clear soprano, and proves herself as adept in a stark dramatic role as she was in her much lighter roles in That Perfect Moment. The non-traditional casting of Christine Horn as Daisy Devore, Mr. Zero’s co-worker and the object of his affection, proves disconcerting at first given the racist epithet Mr. Zero spits out in his confession, but ends up adding complexity to Zero’s character. Not surprisingly, given the Scenie winner’s recent performance as the most unforgettable of The Women Of Brewster Place, Horn dazzles in this very different role, imbuing Daisy with a sad sweetness and vocalizing with a set of absolutely glorious pipes. Horn’s fellow Scenie winner Rob Herring makes it three superb performances in a row with his work as the sweetest mother-killer ever to grace a musical stage, once again revealing the heavenly tenor that doubtless contributed to his Ovation Award-nominated turn as the doomed Tobias in Sweeney Todd.
An ensemble of gifted musical theater newcomers (Greta McAnany, Travis Leland, Nick Tubbs, and Mandy Wilson) not only acquit themselves of their demanding vocal tasks with consummate skill and flair, they also execute a variety of supporting roles, including married couples Mr. and Mrs. One and Two as well as assorted accountants, prisoners, a prisoner’s wife, a matron, and a prison guard. The only nit one could possibly pick with this particular group of performers is their uniform youth, making middle-aged Mr. Zero stand out as a tad too much an anomaly in the accounting firm. Alan Abelew completes the cast quite effectively in the show’s sole non-musical track, playing three roles: Mr. Zero’s boss, a Fixer, and Charles, whose job it is to inform Mr. Zero of his post-death future.
There would be no Adding Machine: A Musical without the accomplished work of musical director Alan Patrick Kenny and the production’s marvelous three-piece orchestra—Kenny on piano, Chris Meyers on keyboards, and Scott Director on percussion.
Makeup and hair design (both excellent) are by Catherine Joseph, Jennifer Palumbo is stage manager, and Katherine S. Hunt is prop master.
Adding Machine: A Musical will not be everyone’s cup of tea. If Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound Of Music is as dark a show as you’d care to see, if you’d pick Jerry Herman over Stephen Sondheim any day, if out-of-the-ordinary is something you’d rather opt to skip … then by all means, search out a more traditional show. If, however, you are open to taking chances where musical theater is concerned, Adding Machine: A Musical is simply not to be missed.
ADDING MACHINE: A MUSICAL
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.
February 6, 2011
Photos: Ron Sossi