The Hypocrites tally up a stunning revival of this bleakly comic, Chicago-born musical adaptation.
As the Hypocrites enter their 20th year, it’s fascinating to watch the company’s aesthetic choices continue to evolve. Witness the Hypocrites’ new season announcement this week, devoid of familiar, public-domain titles, or current-season picks like American Idiot and the second Chicago production of Adding Machine: A Musical.
This musicalization of Elmer Rice’s 1923 Expressionist outcry, adapted by composer Joshua Schmidt and writer Jason Loewith, was born nearly a decade ago at Evanston’s now-defunct Next Theatre, where Loewith was artistic director at the time. An unexpected hit at Next, the production transferred to New York for an Off Broadway run. I didn’t see that original staging, and even the excellent original cast recording of Schmidt and Loewith’s score didn’t prepare me for just how affecting and effective the adaptation proves in Geoff Button’s dark gem of a production for the Hypocrites.
Rice’s play centers on one Mr. Zero, a bookkeeper trapped in an unhappy routine of brutal monotony. Loewith and Schmidt capture this in their musical’s opening segments, first in a sort of aria of nagging for Zero’s wife, then in a brilliantly discordant number in which Zero and his fellow accountants reveal their daydreams as their female assistants rattle off series of numbers. When Zero’s expected promotion turns out to be a layoff, replaced by a mechanical calculator, his deep well of frustration turns murderous.
In Button’s thrust staging, the action all seems to take place in a murky limbo; Mike Durst’s lighting design is both moody and precise. Patrick Du Laney’s Zero, all slumped shoulders and tortoise-like head thrust, nails his character’s self-defeating attitude as we follow him into the afterlife, where he rejects even a paradise that would accept him as a member.
The ensemble cast is full of remarkable performances: Kelli Harrington’s harsh Mrs. Zero is equally excellent, and Bear Bellinger makes an eerie impression as a fellow traveler all too at ease with his fate. Neala Barron, who’s been drawing my admiration at the edges of a number of musical-theater casts over the past few years, achieves a remarkable poignancy as Daisy, Zero’s doggedly devoted assistant who’s willing to follow him to hell and back. The parts of the Hypocrites’ Adding Machine are individually striking; together, they make a hell of a sum.
The Hypocrites at the Den Theatre. Book and lyrics by Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt. Music by Schmidt. Directed by Geoff Button. With Patrick Du Laney, Kelli Harrington, Neala Barron, Bear Bellinger, Tyler Gabrielle Brown, Andres Enriquez, Laura McClain, John Taflan, Jonah D. Winston. Running time: 1hr 35mins; no intermission.