Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Hard to Figure: Despite Punchy Numbers, New 'Adding Machine' Production Doesn't Equal Fond Memories of the Original -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Adding Machine: A Musical
The Hypocrites
at Den Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 15

I really can't explain it, even to myself.

In the 2007, at the now defunct but long estimable Next Theater in Evanston, I saw a world premiere "chamber musical" called Adding Machine that the company's artistic director, Jason Loewith, had written with composer Joshua Schmidt based on a 1923 play by Elmer Rice.

Although I wasn't regularly writing reviews back then, I know that I loved it. I remember discussing it effusively with relatives who had also seen it, and in my "Shows Seen" database, I gave it a 10/10 rating, for both content and performance.

I felt delighted when the Next production, directed by David Cromer, ran Off-Broadway with considerable acclaim the following year, and likely would have seen it if it hadn't closed weeks before a trip to New York.

So I was rather excited in noting that, after having subsequent productions nationwide but none that I noted in the Chicago area, Adding Machine would be presented by the Hypocrites at the Den Theatre.

And so, it is with a fair amount of chagrin, and puzzlement, that I must share that my affinity was much more middling this time around.

I was certainly glad to see the production, found parts of it fantastic--and never formulaic--and in sum would describe it as good.

But having gone into this rendition remembering the original--admittedly without much specificity in terms of songs or plot--as likely the best homegrown work of musical theater I'd ever seen, I ruefully can't rave about Adding Machine as I expected to.

There isn't much obviously subtracting from the Hypocrites' presentation of the material, which depicts a dystopian society in which many people are numbered rather than named, focusing most promising on Mr. Zero, a calculating--in vocation only--worker-bee who is replaced by an adding machine rather than receiving an anticipated promotion after 25 years on the job.

Accompanying the dark themes, this is about as far from a traditional song-and-dance musical as you can get, with one song simply being a recitation of tabulated numbers, whose inventiveness makes it far more stirring than it sounds.

Patrick Du Laney does a fine job as the morose Mr. Zero, Kelli Harrington is well-sung as his wife, Neela Barron is nicely empathetic as an admiring friend--and shines on a torch song called "I'd Rather Watch You"--and Bear Bellinger is great fun as Shrdlu, something of a spiritual adviser after Mr. Zero is punished for a crime of frustration.

Amid a rather dissonant score, Shrdlu's more upbeat songs come across as highlights.

So with a good bit to admire in this Adding Machine, and never a sense that anyone is pushing the wrong buttons, I'm left to wonder if I may have overly liked the Next version or whether something has substantively changed in this one. (Unfortunately, I can't check the tape;)

Without reason to specifically criticize anything I saw on Monday night, I can't help but recall that the Hypocrites take on Into the Woods in 2014 rendered a musical I had loved before and since somewhat well short of wonderful.

And with appreciation for the troupe's use of the Den's intimate space under the direction of Geoff Burton, as well as the talents of the actors/singers and three-piece band, I felt the sound was far too loud--and my hearing is far from pristine--with the overamplification making the discordant music and atypcial lyrics that much harder to ingest.

My disappointment is far less than total, and Adding Machine's innovation + empathetic themes + unique score + fine performances still may equal something well worth your time.

I am not sorry I saw it again, merely wishing I had loved it like I did before and wondering why I didn't--or whether I ever really should have. (Reviews at the time suggest the 2007 show was great; hopefully others like it just as much now).

Hence, while I was hoping to insist musical theater lovers--especially those open to unique variations on the form--roll onto Milwaukee Ave. just north of, appropriately, Division to see Adding Machine, as imperfectly enumerated above the pluses and minuses only tally a less emphatic suggestion. 

1 comment:

Ken said...

I guess sometimes memories are the best