Sunday, September 9, 2012

ADDING MACHINE: A MUSICAL • R-S Theatrics/Soundstage Productions

The last joint production of Soundstage and R-S Theatrics is quite a challenging choice.  Adapted from Elmer Rice's 1923 Expressionistic play, the musical premiered at the Next Theatre in Evanston Illinois and opened off-Broadway in 2008 at the Minetta Lane Theatre.  It received many off-Broadway nominations, and won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical.

The characters in this black musical comedy are not your typical musical theatre types.  Set against a score of complicated rhythms and quirky melodies, these people's lives are bleak, with just about everyone going by numbers instead of names -- like cogs in a machine.  Yet this show has a way of making you want to root for this cheerless, long-faced bunch, even though they may not strike you as likable at first.  The drudgery of their lives is by some means relatable.

Rachel Hanks (Alto Ensemble),
Bradley J. Behrmann (Tenor Ensemble),
Kimberly D. Sansone (Mrs. Zero), Chuck Brinkley (Mr. Zero)
Nick Moramarco (Bass Ensemble) and Anna Skidis (Soprano Ensemble), 
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
The prelude sets the gloomy tone, with the ensemble (Rachel Hanks, Bradley J. Berhmann, Nick Moramarco and Anna Skidis) reminding us that, "In numbers, the mysteries of life can be revealed".  They function as the Greek chorus and fill minor roles along the way.  After that, we're introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Zero (Chuck Brinkley and Kimberly D. Sansone).  The clever staging, faithful to the original, has the couple in bed, but standing up, with pillows placed behind their heads and a couple of ensemble members holding up a blanket across them.  I'm pretty sure if you looked up "relentless henpecking housewife" in the dictionary, you would find a picture of Mrs. Zero.  In the opening number, "Something to Be Proud Of", she badgers Mr. Zero about everything from the latest movie and how they never go downtown to see them, to idle gossip, to how she was a fool for ever marrying him.  Ouch!  Mr. Zero…  Poor bastard…

Maggie Murphy (Daisy Devore).
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
Next we see Mr. Zero at the office.  He's a bookkeeper who jots down numbers by hand and adds the figures for his company.  In a wonderfully monotonous fugue of sorts, "Harmony, Not Discord", the female office workers call out numbers while the guys daydream about beer, what the time is, and girls, all in counterpoint.  One of the workers, Daisy Devore (Maggie Murphy), has a thing for Mr. Zero, but although Mr. Zero has a thing for her too, he doesn't have the nerve to do anything about it.  They do both nurse fond memories of a company picnic where they spent some time together, though.  Zero thinks he may be up for a promotion, considering it's his 25th anniversary at the company, but his boss (Reginald Pierre) has other ideas.  After calling him in to the office, the boss tells Zero that they're having him replaced by new-fashioned adding machines.  Cheaper to operate, and no mistakes.  Mr. Zero cracks up and has a violent response to this unexpected news, but drags himself home in the middle of the wife getting ready for a party that night.  This number, "The Party", is another showcase of the off-beat score, and the cast and musicians handle it well.  The party is interrupted then the cops show up to haul Mr. Zero off to the pokey due to the result of his one act of nerve.  With a last prison visit from the wife, and the befriending of fellow prisoner, Shrdlu (Antonio Rodriguez), condemned for his own horrific crime, act one ends.

Chuck Brinkley (Mr. Zero) and Antonio Rodriguez (Shrdlu).
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
Zero and Shrdlu's fates play out in the second act in the after-life of the Elysian Fields, where they're joined by Daisy, who couldn't bring herself to live without Mr. Zero.  But even in Heaven, Zero has no nerve and is more at home dealing with numbers than words.  At one point, Daisy grieves that she "might as well be alive".

There's no credit for the scenic design -- it's basically just a black curtain backdrop along with a few props, but that's all this show really needs.  The lighting design, courtesy of Rob Bauwens, adds a great deal to the mood of the play, along with Cat Baelish's costumes of shapeless grays and blacks, with only Zero, Shrdlu and the Boss in white.  The ensemble members did a great job nailing down the rhythms in this show.  Brinkley made for a sympathetic Mr. Zero and Sansone presented a nagging Mrs. Zero -- filling their parts well.  Murphy and Rodriguez delivered their numbers wonderfully as the romance-starved Daisy and the psychotically funny Shrdlu, and Pierre also had a great presence in his non-singing roles.  Some of the trickier portions of some of the songs fell a little out of pocket when I saw it preview night.  It may take a performance or two for everyone to settle into this tough score. 

Reginald Pierre (The Fixer) and Chuck Brinkley (Mr. Zero).
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
This musical is anything but conventional, but its eccentric syncopation and surprising melodies are fascinating to me.  I felt the same way when I saw it in 2008 off-Broadway, and I admire the fact that director, Christina Rios, had the guts to mount it.  Check it out.  You may not get another chance for a long time.


Based on the play The Adding Machine by Elmer Rice
Book/lyrics by Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt
Music by Joshua Schmidt
Directed by Christina Rios
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through September 16 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Rachel Hanks (Alto Ensemble),
Bradley J. Behrmann (Tenor Ensemble), Nick Moramarco (Bass Ensemble),
Anna Skidis (Soprano Ensemble),
Kimberly D. Sansone (Mrs. Zero) and Chuck Brinkley (Mr. Zero).
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
Chuck Brinkley (Mr. Zero), Kimberly D. Sansone (Mrs. Zero), Maggie Murphy (Daisy Devore), Reginald Pierre (The Boss/The Fixer/Charles), Antonio Rodriguez (Shrdlu), Anna Skidis (Soprano Ensemble/ Mrs. One/Mae/Prisoner's Wife), Rachel Hanks (Alto Ensemble/Mrs. Two/Matron), Bradley J. Behrmann (Tenor Ensemble/Mr. One/Prisoner) and Nick Moramarco (Bass Ensemble/Mr. Two/Prison Guard).

Costume design by Cat Baelish ; lighting design by Rob Bauwens ; stage manager, Kelly Robertson; musical direction by Leah Luciano; percussionist, Devin Lowe.

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