Atomic at the Acorn
Atomic by Danny Ginges, Gregory Bonsignore, and Philip Foxman
Off-Broadway, Acorn Theatre
Reviewed by Scott Klavan, July 12, 2014
The creators of Atomic, the impassioned new Off-Broadway musical about the building of the atom bomb, can’t leave well-enough alone. The story is told from an unusual and clever angle, focusing on lesser-known physicist Leo Szilard, who invented the concept of nuclear fission, relegating expected lead Robert J. Oppenheimer to the sidelines. The show’s songs are often tuneful and spirited, its performances genuine, set and lighting inventively brash. But the production doesn’t fully trust its material or audience and ladles it on thick, repeating scenes and songs, gilding the lily. The question of the morality of America creating bombs that killed tens of thousands is illustrated, pondered, firmly answered, then torn down, reopened, thrust up in the air again, resulting in a Politically Correct muddle a more restrained piece might have managed to avoid.
Atomic was originally produced in Sydney, Australia, continuing a trend of using overseas as an out-of-town tryout, started, or matched, anyway, by Rocky, the current Broadway musical that began in Germany. Director Damien Gray puts on productions for Disney theme parks, among other corporate locales, and the opulent, loud, in-your-face staging has both a European as well as a Disnified feel; some of which is exciting, too much of which wears out its welcome.
The story starts with the confident, acerbic Oppenheimer (Euan Morton) being interrogated at a post-War Senate hearing. Oppenheimer then narrates the tale of the bomb, introducing us to Szilard (Jeremy Kushnier), and we see how the leading Hungarian-Jewish scientist struggles with his romance with lover, later, wife, Trude Weiss (Sara Gettelfinger), an accomplished doctor who bemoans the busy professional couple’s lack of time together. Szilard’s inventions lead him to work with the Manhattan Project, the secret U.S. program to make a master bomb that will compete with the one the Germans are rumored to be building. Joining with lusty, innovative Italian Enrico Fermi (Jonathan Hammond), Edward Teller (Randy Harrison) and the lone female on the crew, Leona Woods (Alexis Fishman), Szilard works in New York, Chicago and finally lands at Los Alamos, where, under the direction of Arthur Compton (David Abeles), the liaison between the scientists and the army/government, the serious building of the weapon is initiated. Along the way, Szilard’s rebelliousness gets him fired, but when he hears from Trude about their Jewish relatives dying in Nazi Death Camps, Leo knows the assignment needs to be finished, and his skill is needed to finish it; he asks back on the job, and Compton agrees.
In Arizona, the scientists, feeling the pressure, drinking heavily, complete the task. Then, Germany surrenders; Szilard and his colleagues figure their bomb will be unnecessary. But the government, and Oppenheimer, don’t want all this intricate, hugely expensive work to go to waste. They decide to drop the bomb on Japan and hope that this will end war as we know it. Szilard, who by now has developed cancer, is outraged; tormented by his conscience, viewing the use of the bomb as a barbaric act, making the U.S. in its own way as bad as the enemy, he circulates a petition to stop the weapon from being activated. This, of course, fails and the two bombs create havoc in Japan. After the War’s end, the scientists meet at a bar to sift through their mixture of pride, remorse and confusion over a project that was at best, a needed act of cruelty, and at worst, a war crime.
Throughout Atomic, the creative team tries assiduously to inject a sense of humanity into what could have been a hopelessly dry affair. Szilard and Trude grapple emotionally with their love and marriage, Fermi is a lascivious rapscallion, Leona a sharp-tongued hard-ass. Roughly half of the songs- by Danny Ginges, Gregory Bonsignore & Philip Foxman- work very well, particularly the upbeat numbers: Fermi’s intro “America Amore” is riotous and dirty; the scientists’ drinking to “The Bar Song” jazzy and hypnotic; “The Holes In The Donuts” sung by the female factory crew putting together the pieces to the mysterious project (Gettelfinger, Fishman & Grace Stockdale), is a successful tribute to Andrews Sisters-style swing; and “Only Numbers” makes a sad, ironic account of the callousness needed to OK the final act of carnage.
But the show then tries too hard; it can’t keep its hands off itself. Szilard and Trude have three or four of the same kinds of scenes, none of which really produce the warmth and pathos they are seeking; Leo’s inner questioning yields several late-show, fervent, seemingly interchangeable ballads. Staging, and the ever-revolving set of the gifted veteran Neil Patel, is first intense and brilliant, but later, frenzied and dizzying. The performance in the smallish Acorn Theater is over-miked, and the sound grows oppressive.
More seriously, the show’s theme furthers this lack of discipline. For most of the piece, the attitude towards the U.S.’s culpability in the giant murderous acts of the age, is tossed around uncertainly. But the show finally alights upon what can only be called a mealy-mouthed condemnation of America and its scientists, one that equates Allied offenses with those of the Axis powers. Just as the show tries to accomplish too much in its staging and score, its “message” tries to please everyone, ultimately seeming callow. With the World War II generation fast disappearing, and the palpable, physical experience of the atrocities dying with them, what seems to be left is a revisionist, youthfully theoretical take on the War, a view that lacks a sense of the real horror, blood and guts that forced our elders into making impossible, necessary decisions. (Decisions, it might be noted, that enabled the freedom to make musicals which debate morality from the safety of our theaters.) The Japanese are portrayed here as essentially innocent bystanders, in the wrong place at the wrong time, while war rages around them.
The show drives its wonderfully talented cast mercilessly. This workhorse group has incredible pipes and while American Idol/ Disney seems to have influenced the kind of shouting that is included in some of the numbers, here, unlike TV, the yelling is on-pitch. Jeremy Kushnier as Szilard is a full-voiced, effectively complicated center to the show. It’s not his fault that he’s in it too much and is eventually forced to repeat himself. Euan Morton has the opposite problem: he brings charisma and bitter humor, as well as another amazing voice to Oppenheimer, but the role is skimpy and pretty lousy, basically a Game-Show host. Jonathan Hammond is funny and expert as Fermi, the same for Alexis Fishman as Leona, and they luck out as their parts fade at just the right time. Sara Gettelfinger does her best with the role of Trude, but, again, overused, has to resort to eccentricities to hold our interest. (It doesn’t help that she’s saddled with the show’s worst song, “Headlights.”) David Abeles handles the period professionalism of Compton excellently. The sexy statuesque Grace Stockdale, a star-in-the-making, steals everything she’s in.
Ultimately, the indulgence that hurts Atomic is remediable. The core of the show is superior. It’s the insecurity of the production, the fear that modern audiences will not sit still for a musical play about a serious historical topic without being continually prodded, pushed, tickled and punched, that forces it over the edge. Given that this particular limited engagement is probably an audition for Broadway, it may very well be fixed along the way. If not, it’s a shame. It’s overdone, but when it works, Atomic brings ambition and fire to a challenging subject.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. As an actor, Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club, and in regional theater. In 2014, he shot a featured role in the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007 by Applause Books. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. He is the Visiting Playwright for the Escape-themed 2014 New Plays from the Heartland Midwest One-Act Play Competition at Heartland Theatre Company in central Illinois. Currently, he is directing a one-woman show, My Stubborn Tongue, about a Russian immigrant’s experience in the USA, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn. It opens in August at the New Ohio Theater in New York City.
Other recent reviews by Scott Klavan for EIL:
Historical photos of the Manhattan Project thanks to Wikipedia/Wikimedia