By: Paulanne Simmons
When most people think about the Manhattan Project, the first scientists who come to mind are Enrico Fermi and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Leo Szilard, who set it all in motion when he discovered the nuclear chain reaction, remains all but forgotten. This neglect is corrected in Atomic, a new musical from Australia, with book and lyrics by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore, and music and lyrics by Philip Foxman.
With Oppenheimer (Euan Morton) as the narrator (he is testifying before the House Un- American Activities Committee), the musical traces the development of the bomb from Szilardʼs initial meetings with Lord Rutherford (Rob Evan) to itʼs detonation over Hiroshima. Along the way we learn of the various snags, both theoretical and political, that could have, but didnʼt derail the project. However, much more interesting are the personal dilemmas that confront Szilard (Jeremy Kushnier). Should he spend so much time away from his beloved wife, Trude (Sara Gettelfinger)? How can he retain control of the project he initiated? And finally, should the bomb actually be dropped?
Atomic has a truly superior cast, from the fiery Kushnier in the lead to the sardonic Alexis Fishman, who plays Leona Woods, the only female member of the team that built the first nuclear reactor, and various smaller roles. Jonathan Hammond contributes a welcome note of lechery in his portrayal of Fermi. And Gettelfinger excels as the unhappy but loyal wife.
Damien Grayʼs direction keeps the anxiety high, the passions warm and the irony piercing. Although itʼs hard to understand why he has the cast keep turning a large table (the only significant piece of furniture on stage) around and around between scenes.
The pulsing rock music, although not in keeping with the time period, is nevertheless fitting for the subject matter and suits the set (Neil Patel), made up of brightly lit scientific-looking squares. The final song, in which all of the players reflect on and attempt to justify their participation, is particularly effective.
With no music, Atomic would have made a fine drama. And with little connection between the score and the story, itʼs hard to understand why Atomic is a musical at all. Often at the most dramatic moment, the actors burst into songs that merely repeat what has already been said. Weʼre dying to know what happens next but have to wait until the song ends to find out.
There are few musicals that are as thought-provoking as Atomic. Anyone with a love and respect for history will find this behind-the-scenes peek into the making of the bomb intriguing. But after seeing Atomic, many theatergoers may ask its creators the same question people asked Fermi, Oppenheimer, Szilard, et. al.: what were you thinking of?
Atomic, at Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 412 West 42 Street, through Aug. 16.
Photo: Carol Rosegg
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