May 31, 2008

"Adding Machine" Adds Up to a Great Show

It seems that ever since Stephen Sondheim’s Company changed the way people think about musicals, the generation of musical makers who followed him has struggled to bring ever more serious subjects and complex music to the stage. Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Jeanine Tesori, and Michael John LaChiusa have all had varying degrees of success with this formula but I still often find myself groaning when someone suggests going to see one of these “new school” musicals. They can be so unrelentingly solemn that I almost expect to find hemlock cocktails waiting at the refreshment bar.

And so even though I was pleasantly surprised (actually totally thrilled) by the dark and complex Spring Awakening last year, I had my doubts about seeing Adding Machine, which is playing through Aug. 31, at the Minetta Lane Theatre. But friends kept talking and blogging about the show. And it recently won Lucille Lortel and Outer Critics Circle awards. So my always-up-for-a-theatrical adventure pal Bill and I agreed that we ought to see it. And now, if you haven’t, I urge you to do so too.

The show seems to be a fairly close adaptation of Elmer Rice’s 1923 play The Adding Machine, which tells the story of an everyman named Mr. Zero, who, after working as a bookkeeper for 25 years, is replaced by an adding machine. The dehumanizing effects of industrial progress was a popular topic of that period (Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal and Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” also tap into that nightmarish side of the American Dream) but no one is more despairing than Rice, who even rules out salvation in the afterlife. I know what you’re thinking: bring on the hemlock.

But what makes Adding Machine work for me is the same thing that made Spring Awakening my favorite show of 2007: the understanding that even a show about the darkest or most complex subject also has to entertain its audience. Josh Schmidt and Jason Loewith’s score for Adding Machine is filled with songs that convey character and emotion (click here to listen to a few samples) and that succeed as artfully crafted show tunes, not the ersatz arias of the kind that weigh down so many of the new school musicals.

David Cromer’s direction, Takeshi Kata’s scene design, Keith Parham’s lighting design and Tony Smolenski IV’s sound design all not only beautifully reinforce the bleak state in which Zero exists but offer enough surprises to keep the audience engaged and, at times, even gratefully amused. The performances work too. Joel Hatch as the seemingly affectless Zero, Cyrilla Baer as his shrewish wife and Amy Warren as the office mate who secretly longs for him are all spot on.

I confess that some of the surrealistic elements seemed a little daffy (according to the New York Times review of the original play they seemed daffy back in 1923 too) but for me Adding Machine adds up to an evening that is bracingly intellectual and stirringly visceral. It’s an original but I hope it won’t be the only one of its kind.


Joseph Gomez said...

Adding Machine was my favorite new musical of the season. And I'm glad I'm not the only one who saaw the Sondheim-ishness of it all. I love it.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for the comment, Joseph. As you probably know, the CD has just come out this week. And, to celebrate, the producers are going to give free copies to EVERYONE who attends the performance on Tuesday June 3. Really a lovely gesture.