A Life That Adds Up To Zero

Is life futile? This is a question I faced this afternoon when we went to the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in West Los Angeles to see the West Coast premiere of “Adding Machine: The Musical“. This musical is based on a 1923 play by Elmer Rice that explores the dehumanization of man and the meaning of life. A few years ago, Joshua Schmidt (original music, liberetto) and Jason Loewith (liberetto) turned it into a musical with odd atonal music. I had picked up the album a few years ago, and I wanted to see the musical to see if I could further figure out the musical.

Adding Machine” tells the story of Mr. Zero, an accountant working in a business for 25 years adding numbers. Married to a shrew of a wife who harangues him at any opportunity, his sole hope is a promotion to the front office. His coworkers are equally drones, except for Daisy, who secretly has a crush on him. On his 25th anniversary at work, Mr. Zero’s supervisor calls him in to the office, and tells him he is being replaced by an adding machine. In response, Mr. Zero kills his boss, coldly and indifferently. As he expects, he is arrested and sentenced to death. As he his having his last meal (ham and eggs), his wife visits him, initially reminding him of the good times, but then haranguing him again when she learns of Daisy. He is electrocuted, and goes to some form of purgatory called Elysian Fields. There he learns he is not to be judged… he just waits. He also discovers Daisy, who has committed suicide by gas explosion to be with him. They discover their love, but Mr. Zero cannot accept that she committed suicide for him. He takes solice in adding numbers on an adding machine. At the end of the musical, Shrdlu (perhaps God, perhaps his angel) informs Mr. Zero it is time to go back: his soul has been washed and is ready to be recycled. Mr. Zero asks if this has happened before, and Shrdlu informs him that it has–over and over and over again. The depressing part is that Mr. Zero always ends up a slave in a worthless life. In the final scene, Mr. Zero crosses back, and Shrdlu indicates how he hates his job.

Let’s address what I didn’t like first: the music is odd and dissonant. There were only one or two melodic pieces. This fits the existential nature of the play well, but it wasn’t music that drew me in. The story was also an odd one, with a slightly depressing ending. It certainly doesn’t qualify as an uplifting musical. Still, the execution was interesting, and I have a better understanding of the story for it.

What was uplifting was the acting. Particularly strong was Clifford Mortsæ as Mr. Zero. Morts brought to life an aging downtrodden man for whom life was drugery; when he was to be replaced by a machine you could see how it was the last strawn. Christine Hornæ, as Daisy, was also very strong, capturing the loveliness and loving nature of that character well. She also had a beautiful singing voice in one of the few melodic numbers. The third actor I want to highlight was Kelly Lesteræ as Mrs. Zero. Although a small
role, she captured the shrew aspects well. Rounding out the cast were Alan Abelewæ (Boxx, Fixer, Charles), Rob Herringæ (Shrdlu). In the chorus, playing multiple unnamed characters, were Travis Leland, Greta McAnany, Nick Tubbs, and Mandy WIlson.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the technical aspects: The set of this production was relatively simple: platforms, desks, jails, ledger books, and a stand-up bed for the opening scene. Drop fabrics symbolized Elysian Fields. The overall color scheme was grey. This design was by Charles Erven, and fit the story quite well. Props were by Katherine S. Hunt. The lighting was harsh — again, this fit the story well — and was designed by Adam Blumenthal. The costumes did an excellent job of amplifying the grey dronish atmosphere (although they weren’t period, but I don’t fully expect that given the existential nature of the piece), and were designed by Katheryn Poppen. Makeup and hair design was by Catherine Joseph. Sound design was by Rosalyn Rice. Choreography was by Natalie Labellarte, and was more focused on movement than dance. The orchestra was directed by Alan Patrick Kenny, who led the three piece orchestra (Kenny on piano, Chris Myers on keyboard, and Scott Director on percussion).

The production was directed by Ron Sossi, assisted by Sabrina Lloyd. Jennifer Palumbo was Production Stage Manager.

Adding Machine: The Musical” continues at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble until March 13th. Tickets are available online or through the Odyssey box office. Note that there are $15 hottix at curtain time, plus you should be able to find discounts on Goldstar. If you’re looking for a conventional musical, you probably won’t like this. If you are looking to be challenged about dehumanization and life, this is worth seeing.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Next weekend is another with two shows: “Rock of Ages at The Pantages Theatre on February 19, and “33 Variations at the Ahmanson Theatre for February 20. February closes with “Moonlight and Magnolias” at The Colony Theatre on February 26. March is also busy. It begins with a Noel Paul Stookey concert at McCabes on March 4. March 5 is the MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at TBH. The first two weekends of March are also the Spring Musical, Evita”, at Van Nuys High School; we’re likely going on Saturday, March 12. Sunday, March 13 is “The Cradle Will Rock” at the Blank Theatre. The weekend of March 19 is currently open, but that probably won’t last for long. Lastly, March 26 brings “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Repertory East. April will bring the Renaissance Faire, “The Producers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, “The All Night Strut” at the Colony Theatre, and (pending ticketing) Brian Stokes Mitchell at the new Valley Performing Arts Center.