- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) - All of a sudden, the American musical seems adventurous again.

Last fall was a particularly barren time for song on Broadway, with only “Young Frankenstein” and “The Little Mermaid” arriving during the strike-interrupted first half of the season.

As spring blossoms, though, things are looking up — both on and off-Broadway.

Broadway saw the arrival of “Passing Strange,” featuring the pop-rock permutations of an ingratiating performer named Stew, and “In the Heights,” spiced with Latin-flavored music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Still to come is composer John Bucchino’s “A Catered Affair,” not to mention “Glory Days,” the reminiscences of twentysomethings barely old enough to reminisce.

Off-Broadway saw “The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island,” an oddly named but entertaining show featuring animated backgrounds, as well as “Next to Normal,” an ambitious attempt to grapple with the effects of mental illness on a family. Producer David Stone says the latter could have a regional theater production before returning to New York.

Nowhere, however, has the determination to push boundaries been more successful than in “Adding Machine,” the unlikely chamber-opera adaptation of Elmer Rice’s 1923 expressionistic drama about the dehumanizing effects of mechanization. Critics cheered. The show is drawing audiences, too, to the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village.

The show premiered early last year in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., the brainchild of Jason Loewith, who runs the Next Theatre Company there. Several years ago, Mr. Loewith approached Josh Schmidt, a young composer, musician and sound designer, and told him, “If you can write this, we’ll produce it.” Mr. Schmidt said yes, even before he read the play.

Only then did Mr. Schmidt realize what he was getting into — the grim tale of Mr. Zero, an anonymous accountant nagged by his wife, belittled by his boss and eventually automated out of his job. It’s a scenario that leads to murder, imprisonment, execution and a strange afterlife for the lead character, played by Joel Hatch.

With Mr. Loewith collaborating on the libretto, the 32-year-old Mr. Schmidt wrote a score that he says reflects the “breath of different musical experiences in my life — but I am not trying to be derivative of any single one. The teens and the ‘20s, in particular, are fascinating periods in musical history regardless of where you are.”

“The score is a one-of-a-kind achievement,” says Tommy Krasker, co-founder of PS Classics, which will release the show’s cast recording in June. “At times, it’s astonishingly modern, angular and powerful, at other times unexpectedly touching and melodic.

“Josh and Jason seem to imagine a musical theater of endless possibilities — and in 2008, that’s nothing short of miraculous.”

The journey of “Adding Machine” to New York began during the first few days of February 2007 in Chicago. Producer Scott Morfee was there visiting friends, including David Cromer, who directed “Adding Machine.” Mr. Cromer got Mr. Morfee to the show (despite below-zero weather), and the producer, who has done such offbeat plays as Tracy Letts’ “Killer Joe” and “Bug” in New York, was intrigued.

When a homemade CD of “Adding Machine” arrived in the mail, Mr. Morfee began playing it in his car on his way home to Brooklyn. “The show got under my skin,” he says. Friends liked it, too, as did his producing partner, Tom Wirtshafter. They decided to bring the production to New York.

Budgeted at what Mr. Morfee says was a little less than $700,000, “Adding Machine” opened with not much of an advance at the 250-seat Minetta Lane. “I think people wait for reviews,” the producer says. But the notices helped.

“Word of mouth is kicking in now,” Mr. Morfee adds. “The response is becoming stronger by the day — not only in terms of the ovations at the end of the show, but how audiences are tuning into the story earlier on … they are finding the humor.

“I wish it were possible for everyone to see the show twice,” he says. “I think ‘Adding Machine’ has that kind of density and intensity and interest to it so that the second time you see it, you have a slightly different experience and a different relationship with the music.”

Mr. Schmidt isn’t resting on the adulation. He is on to his next, equally ambitious project: a musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida,” written for piano, violin, cello and bass. Expect the curtain to rise in May 2009 at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, Ill.

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