I went to three musicals this week and I enjoyed them all. But please, don’t summon the men in the white coats just yet; my reasons are easy to explain: In all three shows, something of importance to the creators has been fully articulated according to their own lights. As a result, all three entertain people like me—and give us an inkling of that importance—without going through all the hard-sell calculations that make big commercial musicals so annoying these days. Importance is a relative concept: The key is never how “serious” the material is, but how fully it engages the artists involved. The beauty of both Adding Machine and Passing Strange is that they feel complete. When you leave, you’ve gotten everything the creators had to tell you about this story. The all-too-brief revival of In Circles, a 1967 work, made a happy reminder that this sense of completeness has always been the musical’s goal.
Adding Machine is a completely contemporary new show with totally up-to-date resonances. I phrase myself that way because I’ve caught glimpses, in skimming others’ reviews, of learned discussions about Expressionism, pastiche, and similar words that scare away audiences by making the show sound like a history lesson, or some antique-store object just given a hasty overhaul. Yes, it’s based on Elmer Rice’s famous 1923 play of the same name, and, yes, it employs a lot of aesthetic strategies, musical and visual, appropriate to Rice’s time. But that’s where its ingenuity lies: The show’s startling, grim revelation turns out to be that, under the “quaint” period clothes and dated slang expressions and machine-age Art Deco visions of wheels within wheels, what Rice had to say hasn’t dated at all. Though anyone under 30 in the audience may not even know what an adding machine was, the story’s central premise seems all too much like today: An ordinary working stiff gets the heave-ho after 25 years of office drudgery, when a new invention allows the boss to cut costs. That Mr. Zero (Joel Hatch) inhabits a time without pension plans, unemployment insurance, or Social Security hardly makes him seem remote from us, after eight years of greedy Republicans busily shredding the social safety net.
This is Adding Machine‘s core, not its substance. Cunningly, Rice used his Expressionist stylization to make Zero more than the image of an economic problem in “human resources,” as our inhumane time has rebaptized the personnel department. A model of punctual rectitude at his job, he’s the straitlaced, out-of-it guy who never raises his head above the task at hand. Bedeviled at home by his unfulfilled, nagging wife (Cyrilla Baer), he resolutely ignores the temptation offered at work by Daisy (Amy Warren), the partner in desk drudgery who secretly dotes on him. Nor is he comfortable among the similarly positioned neighbors with equally digital monikers, who rehash the old jokes, wallow in the old fantasies, and parrot the old prejudices by which capitalism keeps the lower middle class from perceiving that, as a class, it’s being had. Too stolid for these weapons of mass distraction to affect him, Zero is likewise too uninquiring to perceive the inner resources that might offer him escape from his deadly trap. Even in the afterlife, where Adding Machine‘s second half takes place, he goes from one missed chance at Nirvana to another.
Fast on its feet, the musical, cunningly compressed by adaptors Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt, boils Rice’s bitterly comic parable down to a taut 95 minutes, astutely using the minimalist pulse of Schmidt’s score to keep events speeding forward, with judicious interruptions for Tin Pan Alley genre tunes that anchor the action in the 1920s. Takeshi Kata’s set, its areas boldly broken up by Keith Parham’s inventive lighting, pulls off a similar double game, making this mechanized world seem excitingly new and classically familiar at the same time. As this suggests, David Cromer’s production is seamlessly unified, every point given its exact weight. Yet it never feels rigid: Cromer’s cast is seamless too, with his lead performers constantly conveying the extra possibilities that their characters never grasp. Hatch, big and portly, with his flatlined mouth and the glint of perpetual hurt in his eyes, makes it movingly clear that Zero is only one letter away from “hero.” Schmidt’s score has one shortcoming, never injecting the old song genres with the extra rhythmic or harmonic spice that would make it stick in the memory. But with a piece this powerful, why quibble about the lack of something extra?
Passing Strange, paradoxically, seems more like a tale from some earlier time than Adding Machine: A rock show told in what you might call an augmented concert staging, it’s a sweet coming-of-age story about a young California artist who wanders to Europe to find himself, discovering instead that the world’s a lonely place and that your roots back home will ultimately tell you more than all your wanderings. The endearing gentleness of these home truths makes an intriguing—and often exhilarating—cognitive dissonance with the sassy, punkoid assertiveness of the music, which may be on the loud side for your cousins from out of town, though in other respects Passing Strange might be just their dish.
If you look behind its brash tone, Passing Strange actually offers a ruminative, rueful, and often witty view of the story it tells. Stew, the co-composer-writer-narrator-bandleader, has the easygoing presence of a jovial genie, his commentary always pitched to convey compassionate awareness rather than condescension, as his hero—incarnated with touching, defiant haplessness by Daniel Breaker—stumbles from one misguided foray to the next. Annie Dorsen’s staging, much of it carried on in front of a full-wall light sculpture for which David Korins (set) and Kevin Adams (lighting) should presumably share the praise, catches just enough detail to focus the narrative while moving it along with breezy elan. If there’s a flaw here, it’s in the material’s lack of emotional “grab”; it never gives its score a chance to peak. Luckily, Breaker’s performance, and that of Eisa Davis as his patient, devoted mom back home, supply Passing Strange with plenty of emotional heft.
In 1967, In Circles was an extraordinarily light-hearted event, one of the earliest triumphs in the magical collaboration of minister-composer Al Carmines and director Lawrence Kornfeld on Gertrude Stein’s allegedly intractable plays. In Circles, written in 1920, is steeped in post–World War I atmosphere; for all its lightness, it rang with eerie resonance in those Vietnam days. Ours is a darker wartime, and John Sowle’s revival at Judson, for Kaliyuga Arts, reflected that deeper darkness in its sometimes overinsistent staging. Fortunately, Sowles’s cast boasted many first-rate singers, particularly the sopranos, so that Carmines’s enchanting music kept rescuing the situation with its plangent melodies and deliciously unexpected turns of phrase. A little Stein and Carmines every month might cure all kinds of contemporary ills.