Adding Machine: A Musical does a whole lot, however, with this relatable basic story. The Zeroes are “The 99%” and so are their shallow friends, the Ones, Twos, and so on. The grating Mrs. Z. keeps her timid husband awake at the top of the play talking (singing) about any “number” of them and their reactions to a movie, a celebrity divorce, and a litany of complaints about how Mr. Z. never wants to go downtown. This scene is cleverly staged on a vertical bed, but R-S does it with even fewer props than usual. The whole show is bare bones as far as set is concerned, but the lights play a huge role here, and Rob Bauwene does fine work in that area.
The ensemble also consists of four singers, Nick Moramarco, Bradley J. Behrmann, Rachel Hanks and Anna Skidis who comment on the action, tell segments of the story, and effectively function as a Greek chorus throughout. They also play minor characters, but that’s hard to tell sometimes from just watching. It’s obvious that they are party guests, in one scene, but in the rest of the show, the program guides you to who they are. Maggie Murphy, sounding a lot like the great Judy Holliday at times, is the wistful Daisy who has harbored an inexplicable crush on Mr. Zero for all the years they’ve worked together, she calling out numbers and he recording them in his book and doing the math in his head. This sounds simple, but it is exacting work. Mr. Z. has the hots for her also, but he doesn’t have the nerve, as with so many other aspects of his life, to admit it. Both remember one company picnic with great fondness.
Reginald Pierre is the ill-fated boss who lets Mr. Zero know that after 25 years of faithful service, he won’t be getting the promotion he expected; rather, he will be replaced by an “adding machine,” which eliminates the possibility of human error, and is so simple “a teenage girl” can work it. This is where Mr. Zero goes postal and arrives home for a party his wife is giving late and with blood on his shirt. The police arrive, and he tells the group what he has done.
Mrs. Zero visits him in prison as he’s enjoying his last meal of “Ham and Eggs,” a touching song the two sing together, as she has shown up to see him with the same dish. They segue into “Didn’t We?,” a love ballad, which is rudely interrupted by Mr. Zero’s clumsiness and their reunion ends badly. He also meets a Norman Bates type, Shrdlu (Antonio Rodriguez) who adored his pious mother so much he slit her throat over a leg of lamb (lamb, get it?) when the preacher came to dinner. Rodriguez and the chorus rock the house with “The Gospel According to Shrdlu.” These are examples of some of the more conventional styles of music in this eclectic mix of sounds, much of which could define harmonic dissonance. we’re accustomed to hearing such chords to express pain, fear, and other negative emotions, and they are employed here to mostly good effect, but the limitations of the Gaslight Theatre space seems to augment the shrillness.
Rios mostly conquers the problems inherent in having 10 people on a tiny stage at the same time, especially considering this set was not designed for her show. Daisy leaves a couple of times, as does Shrdlu, but levels help keep the others from bumping into the furniture and each other. There also has to be room for two musicians, instead of the usual three for this show, the musical director and keyboard player, Leah Luciano, and Devin Lowe on percussion. They manage to effectively use their instruments to support the wide range of styles. The actors look good too. The women are in monochromatic, stylized outfits, and the guys are natty, except the schlubby Zero—wearing his white shirt without and with blood throughout—and the psychotic Shrudlu whose tatters reveal his soul. Cat Baelish gets the credit.
Of course, the minor chords discomfit us and add to the effect of essentially what Charlie Chaplin was asking in Modern Times and many lesser artists have addressed: What happens to people when they are rendered obsolete? Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (1923) provided the basis for this 2007 musical and its central conceit: “In numbers, the mysteries of life can be revealed. There are no questions, no demands.” This bold revision has been well received in regional productions and Off-Broadway, as well, winning a number of prestigious awards for creators Joshua Schmidt (music) and Schmidt and Jason Loewith (lyrics). I think it’s a fine idea to include it in the busy St. Louis theatre fall lineup and it should garner a lot of positive reactions, but I also believe that theatergoers more interested in linear, conventional fare may end up a bit puzzled.