Musical plays take their audiences on a journey of storytelling through song and dance. The unique subject matter and history involved in the 2014 original production, “Atomic” posed a challenge to everyone from the director to the set designer. The finished musical, now playing just off Broadway, earns a mixed review.
The play focuses around the character Leo Szilard, a Hungarian born physicist, whose theories were the catalyst for the building of the atomic bomb in the United States during World War II. Portrayed by Jeremy Kushnier, Szilard studied thermodynamics, worked with Enrico Fermi and collaborated with Albert Einstein before beginning his study of nuclear physics. Attempting to create a specific type of chain reaction, he instead discovered ways to separate elements into different parts.
Prior to World War II, Szilard recognized the possibility of creating a nuclear reaction using certain element parts and tried to warn his fellow physicists of the potential dangers. Finally, in 1939, Szilard convinced Albert Einstein to sign a letter he had penned to President Franklin D. Roosevelt regarding his concerns. The President took heed of the warnings and formed a commission called The Manhattan Project to study nuclear fission and its possible effects. Szilard was appointed to that group.
The audience follows the life of Leo Szilard through his time on the Manhattan Project to his decision to leave physics for the study of molecular biology. During this time, he married Gertrude (Trude) Weiss, beautifully portrayed by Sara Gettlefinger. Szilard’s grappling with the ethical and moral issues associated with the use of atomic weapons and his loving relationship with his wife are key to the play’s storyline.
In addition to the previously named characters, the cast also includes the following performers:
? Euan Morton as J. Robert Oppenheimer (Narrator/Physicist)
? Rob Evan as Arthur Compton (Military Liaison)
? Alexis Fishman as Leona Woods (Physicist)
? Jonathan Hammond as Enrico Fermi (Physicist)
? Randy Harrison as both Edward Teller (Physicist) and Paul Tibbets (Pilot)
? James David Larson (Ensemble)
? Grace Stockdale (Ensemble)
Strong stage performances, especially by Fishman and Morton, along with the vocal contributions of Randy Harrison, at times have onlookers riveted.
The production’s score was written by Philip Foxman, who also wrote songs for various MTV programs. With the help of music producer Christopher Jahnke and music director Andrew Peterson, Foxman delivers a variety of genres, an unusual feat for a lot of composers, many of which rock the house. His lyrics are specific to the character for whom they were written. Case in point is Rob Evan’s performance of “Method to Madness,” while portraying Compton, the liaison to the military. The audience is engaged through what is a complicated portrayal of history. Composers of musicals are tasked with telling the story through song, not just words, and Foxman surely hits the mark with his original compositions.
Damien Gray directed this 2014 off-Broadway musical, and his goal was to draw the audience into the world of science and ethical behavior hidden behind a world preparing for war. The complexity of the subject matter for the average audience member made this a daunting task.
Neil Patel was brilliant in designing a set made mostly of steel rods. With virtually no set changes throughout the production, his use of this material was key to setting the stage for the scientific story to come, yet did not appear to be out of place considering the play’s timeframe.
Although the costume requirements for the play were fairly straightforward, designer Emma Kinsbury perfectly captured the time period of the late 1930s through the early 1950s. In stark contrast to the steel pieces of the set, Kinsbury’s choices of colors and styles, as well as the simple accessories used, left no doubt in the mind of the viewer that the characters were from the early to mid 20th century.
Special effects and lighting were important to this production, given the simplicity of the set. Lighting designer David Finn and Special Effects Designer Gregory Meem did not disappoint. Finn used domino-like light boxes effectively during the performers’ serious dialog and some music segments, while brighter lighting indicated a laboratory setting. The scene towards the end portraying the bombing of Japan was gripping, thanks to the work of Meem and company. Of course, a musical would not work without great sound design and Jon Weston worked magic in that arena.