Have you ever wanted to kill your boss? I'm sure at some stage we've all fantasised about taking revenge on our superiors, no more so than when a new advancement in technology threatens to replace our very existence and reason for living for the past 25 years. Mr Zero is exactly that; a downtrodden, henpecked and loyal worker who discovers after years of loyal service he's being replaced by an adding machine that will add efficiency and accuracy to the monotony of his daily task in a department store, leading him to the only rational conclusion possible – murder.
Based on Elmer Rice's 1923 satire this is a difficult and deeply unsettling musical that strives so hard to stake its claim as an antidote to traditional musical theatre that it ends up trapping itself within its own principal. Shrill, dissonant and at times difficult to listen to composer and librettist Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith make for an uncomfortable adaptation that's easier to admire for its skill and craft than it is to fall in love with.
Harnessing the extremities of expressionist European theatre the audience are constantly challenged and pushed throughout the 95 minutes that it becomes an act of endurance but in a mechanically rewarding fashion. Josh Seymour's clear yet probing production makes the best of the material, harnessing the style and presenting it in the effective confines of the Finborough's intimate space alongside some effective and innovative design by Frankie Bradshaw that contrasts the bleakness of life on earth with the 'utopia' of the Elysian Fields.
The eukinetics of the staging enhances the primary idea of man as machine, and some of the most effective moments come from the exploration of working life. Mr Zero's interactions with Joanna Kirkland's Daisy Devore provide the warmth that the audience are forced to frantically snatch at against the bleak display, and she not only brings colour to the fifty shades of grey like Dorothy in Oz but also brings with her the closest thing to a discernible melody that delights against the dissonance.
Unlike contemporary musical theatre composers such as Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa, Schmidt lacks the range in his musical landscaping that more often than not feels pretentious rather than dramatically necessary. The scoring for an electronic synthesizer and drum pad works against the tone and authenticity of the piece and the music never feels fully balanced with the vocals within the space.
The cast however are uniformly exceptional in their delivery of Schmidt's challenging score, with a set of dedicated performances from the ensemble characters that remain vocally on point throughout. Joseph Alessi is suitably distant as Mr Zero and Kate Milner-Evans handles an unsettling vocal line remarkably well. The charms of this piece may not be clear to see in the moment, but some time away from it allows you to consider its deeper meaning within the context of the musical theatre canon. Skillfully presented and sublimely performed, this is a piece that will reward those who throw themselves into it, but don't expect to come out humming the tunes or feeling in any way elated -- it's easier to admire than to enjoy.