What’s the difference between a musical and an opera? One definition might be that in opera the drama is largely generated by the music, in a musical it is largely defined by the text. And of course there are the honourable blends exemplified by Kurt Weill's Street Scene, adapted from Jewish writer Elmer Rice’s play.
Seeing Street Scene prompted Jason Loewith to attempt a similar musical adaptation based on Rice’s 1923 play The Adding Machine. Joshua Schmidt composed the music, as well as writing the libretto and book together with Loewith for a 2007 American opening.
The storyline makes a play of two halves. The first is a stifling, all too real account of the life of white-collar worker Mr Zero, exploited at work and hen-pecked at home till he snaps and murders his boss when he is let go in favour of the new-fangled adding machine. The second half is a surrealist journey into the Elysian Fields of the afterlife (complete with swimming pool in the confined playing space in the Finborough), where even Zero and a fellow condemned prisoner might join other souls offered another chance.
Kate Milner-Evans’ Mrs Zero powers the opening, her singing deploring her unhappy life and worthless husband stark, challenging and in-yer-face in this tiny space, her emotional expression transcending what language alone can communicate. The ensemble respond with an intricate mix of movement and song about numbers, perfectly setting up the claustrophobic atmosphere of a life where people are given numbers according to their social standing. Mr Zero – excellent Joseph Alessi – conveys the burden and boredom of a zero, trapped adding numbers day in day out, incapable of escape and unable to liberate himself (as well as performing the feat of devouring ham and eggs as he sings). There’s excellent support from James Dinsmore as a believable Boss here and in the hereafter, from Edd Campbell Bird as Shrdlu, another murderer, in both worlds and from Joanna Kirkland as the girl of Zero’s dreams.
The music was originally scored for just three instruments, Schmidt explaining that he approached the task with this combination in mind and tried to create a full blown, challenging score for three instruments. “It’s not a matter of compensating for instruments that aren’t there." His music sometimes recalls Kurt Weill, but he has a style and punch all his own and Ben Ferguson (Musical Director), Tristan Butler (percussion) and Hamish Brown (synth) give a full account of the enterprise. Chi-San Howard’s movement direction beautifully fuses actions, movements and words with the musical intent on Frankie Bradshaw’s clever transverse set. Direction by Josh Seymour intelligently contrasts the two halves of the show and seamlessly integrates drama, music, spoken word and movement.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Alex Brenner
Adding Machine: A Musical runs until Saturday 22 October, 7.30pm & 3pm, £20, £18 concs, at Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, SW10 9ED; 0844 847 1652. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk