by Ron Cohen · July 14, 2014
Atomic is a rare specimen: a musical that makes you think. In fact, it practically pummels you into thinking.
The book by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore weighs, in nearly relentless fashion, the political and strategic imperatives of war against the moral imperatives of humanism and compassion. The score -- with music by Philip Foxman and lyrics by all three creators -- sets the philosophical conundrum against pounding rock rhythms.
In the center of it all is Leo Szilard, one of the brilliant United States physicists, who during World War II banded together to create the nuclear bomb, in a race against the scientists of Nazi Germany. Once Germany surrenders without having developed such a weapon, Szilard’s concerns about the consequences of the bomb come to a head as plans take shape to drop it on Japan. He gathers signatures from other American scientists for a petition against using the bomb. He also suggests an alternate plan that would warn the Japanese that such a bomb was about to be used, giving them a chance to evacuate the target city before its destructive powers could be demonstrated.
Szilard’s efforts, however, come to naught, and after the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and World War II comes to an end, Szilard and his colleagues are shown haunted by doubts over what they have wrought.
The show’s concerns are hardly unfamiliar. Nevertheless, it‘s still a pretty heavy brew, and it gets heavier as the libretto mixes in pinches of other elements of Szilard’s history. One of these is his battle against cancer, in which he developed radiation therapy using himself as a guinea pig. There’s also the Hungarian-born Szilard‘s Jewish heritage, which comes to the fore as harrowing details of the Holocaust are revealed, and we also see the toll Szilard‘s work takes on his personal life, despite the steadfast love of his physician wife.
The story is told in heightened docudrama fashion, using as a framework the testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the most prominent nuclear physicists, before a post-war Congressional committee investigating Communist sympathies. Oppenheimer deflects the questions of the investigators by telling Szilard’s story. “If I am the father of the atomic bomb, then Leo is its prodigal son,” he tells them.
It’s a compelling piece of history, and unfortunately, the musical numbers often seem more of an intrusion than an amplification. There are some quiet musical moments and a couple of questionable attempts to add traditional musical comedy frivolity. (A trio of assembly line gal workers at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, production facility set up for the bomb development, sings a country-style song about the silly cover story they’ve been told to use to hide the purpose of their work.). However, the insistent rock flavor of most of the score eventually begins to sound repetitious and rarely grabbed me emotionally.
Under Damien Gray’s showy cinematic-like direction, the production has been outfitted with all the bells and whistles any Off-Broadway musical could hope for. Neil Patel’s sleekly handsome unit set glistens with a high-tech look with David Finn’s ever-shifting lighting designs, streaming out of every nook and cranny. The seven-piece band under music director Andy Peterson plays away in first-rate style on a platform perched high above the stage, while Jon Weston‘s sound design comes into its own in the climactic unleashing of the bomb near the show’s end.
The nine-person cast, for the most part, is highly impressive. Jeremy Kushnier as Szilard gives the show an arresting center, capturing the character’s volatility, doubts and struggles against governmental bureaucracy, while keeping it all within very human dimensions. He also moves in and out of some challenging musical passages with ease and strength. Euan Morton admirably carries a lot of the narration chores, as a very snide Oppenheimer; Sara Gettelfinger gives depth to the rather truncated role of Szilard’s wife, and Jonathan Hammond creates some lighter moments as a womanizing Enrico Fermi, a physicist with a distinctly Italian flair. Randy Harrison is credible as both a youthfully sincere Edward Teller, another of the bomb project‘s leading physicists, and a gung-ho Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. David Abeles attracts some sympathy for Arthur Compton, the by-the-book director of the bomb project, and Alexis Fishman makes a spiky lady physicist.
Atomic is such an ambitious project, attempting to lift the musical onto such a serious plane that I just wish it had lifted me out of myself for a couple of hours, as a good musical should. Rather, its musical limitations and overcrowded storytelling left me anchored in my seat, pondering along with Szilard his still-pertinent moral dilemma.