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Murder By Numbers

January 28, 2011

Clifford Morts and Christine Horn Photo: Odyssey Theater

The Odyssey Theater is currently hosting a homecoming of sorts this week with the West Coast Premiere of Adding Machine, the musical version of Elmer Rice’s 1923 play by Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt. This highly unusual work has had very successful runs both in Chicago and Off-Broadway in New York, but its genesis in the mind of Jason Loewith actually comes right back to the fertile creative environment of Los Angeles. According to program notes from Loewith and Odyssey artistic director Ron Stossi, Loewith was working as a production manager at the Odyssey Theater in the early 1990s when he was first exposed to Kurt Weill’s operatic treatment of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene through a friend at Long Beach Opera. This inspired further interest in Rice’s plays and eventually the idea that one of the playwright’s earliest works, The Adding Machine, might make the ideal source for a musical. It wasn’t until many years later that an appropriate composer, Joshua Schmidt, and adequate funding came into the picture, but luckily they did and this quirky, highly unusual musical came to life.

The original play draws heavily on the themes one might associate with composer’s such as Weill, and The Adding Machine has much to say about socialism and the alienation of the common man by an increasingly mechanistic society in the early 20th Century. Its protagonist, Mr. Zero, finds himself unable to escape his humdrum life complete with a nagging wife until he unceremoniously kills his boss after he is fired following 25 years of service adding numbers. This murder leads him to prison, execution, and strangely enough the afterlife. But before and after this, he has a potential romantic entanglement to resolve with Daisy, a co-worker who has taken a liking to him. It is often grim material about the unhappiness in the characters’ lives caused by the larger corporate and societal forces around them. Despite the fantastical nature of some of the events in the story, there is a gritty naturalism as well, including some rather bracing numbers that highlight the racist and anti-Semitic attitudes of some of the characters including Mr. Zero.

But despite all of this darkness, the music part of this musical acts as a counter-weight to the proceedings. Schmidt avails himself of American popular music idioms from Gospel and blues to Tin Pan Alley for a pastiche that would have been familiar to Weill. The songs are also rhythmically complicated at points, which seemed to be an unresolved issue for the cast when I saw the production on Thursday. There are some excellent voices to be sure particularly from Kelly Lester as Mrs. Zero and Christine Horn as Daisy. But even with all of this natural musical talent, the cast and musicians sounded like they needed a bit more practice time together to make everything flow smoothly. The star of the show Clifford Morts was Mr. Zero. He handles the disaffection of the part well, though vocally he was somewhat outpaced by the women. The production itself is sparse and focused and it too is plagued by some kinks that have not been completely resolved. The overall effect is otherworldly with only minimal distinction made between reality and the afterlife.

But even with some of these rough edges still jutting out, Adding Machine is such an unusual and offbeat piece in today's theater landscape, it would be a shame to miss it. The show does make a connection and these unusually unlikable characters soon become heroes to the audience despite this. It's now on stage back at The Odyssey Theater—where it all began—through March 20.

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Dear Brian: I think you mean Weill with two L's, not one. With affection, your constant proofreader.
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