Collaborators Joshua Schmidt (music) and Jason Loewith (libretto co-written with Schmidt) had a challenge adapting Elmer Rice’s darkly expressionistic play "The Adding Machine" (originally produced by the Theater Guild in 1923), now called simply "Adding Machine." It is fairly safe to assume that those who have been chafing at the bit for a musical consideration of this classic and revered play will be rewarded. Adventurous theatergoers may also find much to admire in David Cromer’s artfully pretentious staging. An exceptionally beautiful neo-operatic score, a compliment of excellent singers/ actors, and clever scenic designs by Takeshi Kata contribute to a most unusual entertainment.

The fear, loathing, and suspicion of all things mechanical and industrial that may have concerned a large segment of the working classes in the early part of the 20th century is certainly still part of our lives today. Just think about the theater industry’s recent strike by the stage hands. Consider the impact on our society by a severely reduced industrial labor force, the result of outsourcing jobs to foreign markets.

That we may now in the 21st century be also shuddering more than a little from our increasing dependence on high tech gadgetry and machinery keeps Rice’s theme of alienation and social protest pertinent and timely. I remember being warned by my boss at a newspaper 25 years ago that I had to learn word processing and computer skills (I was fine with a typewriter) if I wanted to keep my job. I did, and did not have to resort to murder as does Mr. Zero in the play and also now in the musical version.

Zero, as stirringly played by Joel Hatch, has been told that after 25 years of sitting at a desk adding up numbers in his head he is being replaced by an adding machine. He isn’t pleased by the devastating news, nor by the harping voice of his shrill and shrewish wife, as played with grating tenacity by Cyrilla Baer. The beauty of this musical adaptation, by a team with whom I am totally unfamiliar, is how skillfully the score’s dramatic dissonance and rhapsodic melodic content is embedded into the surreally conceptualized plot. Not for an instant do you feel that the music hasn’t always been there to support the action. The score couldn’t sound more in step with Rice had it been written by Marc Blitzstein.

"Adding Machine," which has arrived in New York by way of the Next Theater Company in Evanston, Ill, contains just enough spoken dialogue not to fall into the sung-through mode. The 90-minute production moves along at a fast clip with its songs perfectly calculated to stir up the mechanics of the plot. Designers Takeshi Kata (settings) and Keith Parham (lighting) have created a surreal landscape that goes from bleak to fanciful, in itself a witty commentary of one man’s depressing but unexceptional life and death.

A bed is un-typically positioned on its end; its inhabitants are Mr. Zero and his nagging, motor-mouthed wife. Her operatic tirade is enough to make one’s hair or any bed stand on end. The office where Mr. Zero and the other clerks and office workers sit like automatons and dutifully record the sums is bleak and their attitude expressed in a forlorn fugue "In Numbers." The jail where Mr. Zero awaits his execution (along with another murderer, the eerily insane Shrdlu, played by Joe Farrell) is realized as a veritable nightmare. The whimsically expressed afterlife is almost giddy in its homage to the Garden of Eden. And, the futuristic arrival of a colossal machine in the finale is designed to send a chill up your spine (kudos to sound designer Tony Smolenski IV).

"Adding Machine" may seem a bit odd and determinedly arty, but there are keen jolts of the tragic-comical throughout. I don’t mean to be unkind when I say the actors are not an especially attractive lot, but they are all excellent and bring a decisive emotional texture to the musical. They especially have the appearance of everyday people. Hatch, whose face is visibly drained of contentment and happiness, nevertheless, becomes someone for whom we have empathy. Unable to alter his karma, Mr. Zero represents all those who remain rigid, unwilling to change and therefore relegated to repeating their past incarnations throughout eternity.

Amy Warren is poignant as Daisy, the co-worker who is hopelessly in love with Mr. Zero, and Jeff Still registers as Charles, the heavenly messenger. The four additional cast members offer terrific musical support as nameless workers, courtroom attendees, partygoers, and others. Ultimately "Adding Machine" may lack a "The" in the title but there isn’t much else lacking in this most unusual and compelling musical theater experience. HHH

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