Impressionist musicals are few and far between, but Adding Machine: The Musical is certainly one of the best. It doesn’t feature dance routines, jazz hands or particularly hummable tunes, but it throbs with musical power and uniquely tells a tale about the inhumanity of modern existence. It’s savagely funny too, and this production, featuring a committed and commanding central performance and some superb ensemble singing, is stylish and hugely entertaining: a musical treat full of terrific surprises.
If ever proof were needed of the power and endless possibility of musical theatre, Adding Machine: The Musical would be a good place to source such proof. It entirely eschews the notion of “Broadway musicals” yet manages to be stunning and beguiling entirely on its own merits. Fusing a range of musical styles – from jazz to opera with pretty much everything in between – the show makes its point with music and within music, in a way that few musicals attempt.
Based upon Elmer Rice’s 1923 play, The Adding Machine, the musical, with a score by Joshua Schmidt (composer of the criminally neglected chamber piece, The Minister’s Wife) and lyrics by Schmidt and Jason Loewith, debuted in New York in 2008. It has taken nearly a decade for the show to cross the pond, but, happily, the wait was worth it.
Director Josh Seymour does not shrink from the difficulties the musical presents. Instead, he soundly addresses and conquers them, producing a vibrant, engaging and very satisfying production which could play on any stage anywhere. It’s a nimble and thoughtful production which rewards those who engage with it and pay careful attention to the unfolding narrative and enveloping score.
For while the text moves in essentially a linear fashion, inducing surprises and reveals along the way, the score is more holistic, most songs adding texture to an overall tapestry of musicality which cocoons and warms – and makes absolute sense of – the narrative.
Musical director Ben Ferguson ensures that the complex and fascinating score is beautifully played by the three piece band; rhythms and harmonies are assiduously exact, and the balance is excellent, ensuring the skilled voices can always be heard, even in the most difficult of chromatic or melodic tensions.
The narrative concerns the very unhappy Everyman, Mr Zero. His shrewish, determined-to-be-upwardly-mobile, wife makes his life at home a misery and his disenchantment with his lot extends to his relations outside the marital home. He reports a prostitute to the police, putting both feet on the high moral ground. He is mean and rude to his fellow workers in the accounting department where he has worked for twenty-five years, counting, always counting, but never counted.
He dismisses the attention shown to him by his pretty younger colleague, Daisy Dorothea Devore, even though, deep down, he would like to acknowledge and reciprocate them. But his moral position – his marriage – prevents him from acting. Happiness is not as important as conformity.
Expecting a reward for his twenty-five years of service to the one company, he attends his boss’ office with a certain degree of expectant glee. But when he is informed that his service is irrelevant, that efficiency and profit require his replacement by an automatic machine, he loses control – and murders his uncaring, greedy employer.
On death row, Mr Zero has a final exasperating encounter with his venal wife and meets a young psychotic – he cut his mother’s throat rather than carve the roast – who challenges his perceptions about the rewards/punishments the afterlife might hold for the earthly condemned.
From that point on, the musical veers into unexpected territory. Mr Zero finds himself in a fluid state in the afterlife, a place that turns out to be awash with unexpected options and eccentric encounters.
When Mr Zero finally learns what he is, and what others are – including Daisy, who has followed him into the afterlife in the hope of eternal Union in fire and brimstone – he tries to avoid his fate by reverting to type. But the fates have other ideas…
The underlying themes of Adding Machine: The Musical are as relevant now as when Rice first wrote the original play, and there is much to think about about the priorities of modern life. But it’s not depressing or bleak even though aspects of the characters’ lives and aspirations certainly are.
Using a minimalist set, costumes that are black, white and grey mostly, and some Brechtian cards to announce scenes, Seymour smoothly pushes the narrative through its paces, extracting candour and clarity in diverse and clever ways. The staging involves a lot of mechanical, almost clockwork movements, which make corporeal the sense of ritual and repetition inherent in the writing of word and score. Chi-San Howard’s work in this respect is quite brilliant.
The costumes (Frankie Bradshaw and Flora Moyes) are great, really, and there is a trick to them which, when activated, brings warm rewards.
Bradshaw works tricks into the set design too and some of them are wonderfully funny. A pair of sunglasses, a cocktail glass, and a pure crystalline soprano descant make a heady combination against a startling, evocative vista in the latter stages of the production.
What is best about Seymour’s vision for the unfolding of this work is that although there might be puzzles along the way, by the end every aspect of the staging makes perfect sense and you feel enlightened about the entertaining experience the musical has turned out to be.
This is especially important because the music is difficult music to work out; it is not difficult to enjoy, to be lost in, but it is never doing what you might expect. There is an extraordinary number, Harmony, Not Discord, which sets up perfectly the impression of Mr Zero’s number crunching days in the office.
At first, it seems nothing more than a series of oddly chosen notes punched out by different voices in a curious, utterly opaque rhythm which may or may not be syncopated. But, as the number progresses, and you attend to the combination of voices, an overall pulse emerges, a jaunty one contrary to the apparent intent of the scene.
It’s a giddy experience, but utterly worthwhile and the composer’s careful work glistens in your memory, preparing you for what comes. Few musicals ask so much of your attention and reward that attention so richly.
Seymour’s other great strength is casting. Except in one or two respects, none that are fatal, the cast here is exquisite and fully do justice to the intentions of composer and writer. This is a true ensemble piece; it is not a star vehicle. The texture and musical interest is heightened by the skill of the ensemble.
Vocally, the ensemble here are outstanding. James Dinsmore, Helen Walsh, George Rae and Sue Appelby provide strong, secure and marvellously musical performances with the ladies, in particular, bold and ebullient.
Walsh’s powerful and pure vocals soar often and well and Rae’s unerring true tenor swoons and supports. Appelby makes phrases of aching difficulty shimmer. Together, they make potent music, dramatic, intriguing and funny as the occasion demands. Their versatility is breath-taking.
Joanna Kirkland, as Daisy, has a deal of the most accessible music. This suits her sweet, gentle character perfectly and Kirkland gives her melodies sweet, assured grace. I’d Rather Watch You is as light and enchanting as fairy dust and her duet with Mr Zero, Daisy’s Confession, a bloom of vocal joy. There are moments when Kirkland slips vocally, but not so many that it is a serious issue.
Edd Campbell Bird misses no tricks as the psychotic baby-face murderer, Shrdlu. It’s a performance of extremes, precisely as is required. His voice is strong and sure, absolutely beautiful and resonant across the range in which Shrdlu sings his Gospel and Blues numbers. The Gospel number is the vocal triumph of the evening.
The most difficult role in the musical is that of Mrs Zero, the bitter, berating wife of the central character. Kate Milner-Evans is not nearly vicious or haranguing enough in the role – which is a pity because it is the attitude of Mrs Zero to her husband which underpins the attitude of the audience to him. Were she harsher, his behaviour, especially with Daisy, would seem more contextualised.
Milner-Evans has a formidable voice and mostly sails through the vocal challenges. But there are sections where she strives for more control over her instrument, as one might in Opera, rather than the dramatic colour the passages really require.
This is no a failing in the performance of Joseph Alessi, the crucial Mr Zero. Alessi throws himself wholly into the performance and he squeezes out every iota of anguish, disappointment and grief the role requires. It’s a focussed and truly passionate performance, intensely sad, devastatingly uncomfortable. It’s true that Alessi is not entirely up to the extreme vocal challenges of the piece, but his commitment to the music is unquestionable and the dramatic prowess he harnesses overcomes almost all the vocal imperfections.
This is a wholly satisfying theatrical experience which challenges and rewards the attentive audience. Seymour and Ferguson have presided over a clever and sophisticated production of a quite extraordinary musical. In their hands, it all adds up to musical theatre to cherish.