Book and Lyrics: Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt; Music: Joshua Schmidt. At: The Hypocrites at The Den Theatre's Heath Main Stage, 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: www.the-hypocrites.com; $36. Runs through: May 15
Those who caught the astonishing 2007 world premiere of Adding Machine: A Musical at the now defunct Next Theatre will initially be thrown off guard by The Hypocrites' first Chicago-area revival of the show. Thankfully, that sense of confusion soon shifts as the original brilliance of the piece eventually shines through in director Geoff Button's vital new production.
A scene of tedious stasis originally launched playwright Jason Loewith and composer Joshua Schmidt's engrossing musical adaptation of Elmer Rice's pioneering 1923 exercise in American expressionistic drama. The symbolically named clerk Mr. Zero silently endured a drawn-out monologue in bed from Mrs. Zero going on about her constant dissatisfaction with life and her marriage.
In Button's approach to the opening scene, the silently dazed Mr. Zero ( Patrick Du Laney ) is still harangued by Mrs. Zero ( Kelli Harrington ). But now the ensemble has been brought in to thrust everything into a cacophonous whirl of motion as the repetitive blandness of the Zeros' urban lives is played out again and again.
Button's staging busyness for the opening is a valid approach, but it's too difficult to audibly comprehend. The overamplified orchestra drowns out most of the lyrics ( a temporary misstep by sound designers Joe Court and Brandon Reed ), so the production risks losing the disoriented audience from the start.
Thankfully, things soon settle down so audiences can start grappling with Mr. Zero's murderous dilemmas when this nondescript employee of an accounting firm kills his boss ( Andres Enriquez ) on the day of his 25th employment anniversary. Rather than being rewarded, Mr. Zero finds out that he's to be fired and replaced with a newfangled adding machine.
Although set in the early 20th century, much of Adding Machine still feels very timely for today with its examination of technology replacing human workers and unrequited love in the form of Mr. Zero's pining co-worker. Daisy ( Neala Barron ). There's also unknown questions of an afterlife, as personified by the well-sung Bear Bellinger playing the death-row prisoner Shrdlu.
The rest of the vocally rich and busy ensemble also ably assists Button's stark vision for Adding Machine as they take on multiple roles that include inanimate objects like a coat closet. The production also bursts forth with a riot of colors thanks to lighting designer Mike Durst's work that so vividly saturates all the dense fog-machine smoke ( bring a fan to bat some of it away if you are sitting up close ).
The Hypocrites' revival of Adding Machine more than makes up for its rocky start. In addition to being so dramatically engaging, hopefully Adding Machine might also prods audiences to live their lives more fully by seeing Mr. Zero's frustratingly bland existence as a potent cautionary tale.