“Harmony, not discord”
There’s something rather appropriate about the UK premiere of Adding Machine: A Musical opening in the same week as a new production of Floyd Collins, as it was casting director Josh Seymour who helped with the latter at the Southwark Playhouse four years ago and has now turned his own directorial attentions to the former. And you can see he has a type – 1920s Americana filtered through an Expressionist lens and the kind of Modernist score that revels in being called an “anti-musical”, pushing the boundaries of conventional musical theatre as it does.
Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt’s adaptation of the Elmer Rice play The Adding Machine maintains much of the original story – after 25 years of constant if undistinguished service, book-keeper Mr Zero finds his role is to be replaced by an adding machine. And as we’re in the world of the anti-musical, he reacts by killing his boss, is hanged, and goes off to the Elysian Fields where he finds that heaven may not be all that it’s cracked up to be, especially when you’re a miserable murderer. Cue jazz hands!
What Schmidt cleverly does with his score though is to keep us constantly off-balance, never letting the audience sink into complacent comfort as he shifts from gnawing operatics to polyphonic choral work to Gershwin-esque standards and back and around again. You may not come away humming these tunes but they’re remarkably well-integrated into the musical. It is undoubtedly a challenging listen but it has a strangely compelling intensity under Ben Ferguson’s musical direction and his electronically-inclined three-piece band.
And it has been astutely cast too. Joseph Alessi may not display quite the vocal precision such a complex score demands but the force of his acting more than compensates as Zero’s existence is challenged for all – or any – meaning. Kate Milner-Evans is vocally stunning as his harshly nagging wife and as a deliberate counterpoint, Joanna Kirkland’s Daisy is sweetness personified, as befits the potential redemption that she represents.
There’s also powerful work from Edd Campbell Bird as the striking Shrdlu, with his own unique take on (after)life by the side of the pool that cleverly emerges from Frankie Bradshaw’s design. And it is a clever production of a clever musical that is not afraid to make its audience work.