The creation of the atomic bomb and the ethical questions raised by its use on Japan to end World War II would seem a strange topic to turn into a song and dance show. However, Atomic, a new musical which had a successful run in Sydney, Australia, now having its American premiere with an Off Broadway engagement, has an urgency about it that few musicals ever achieve. Even though we know the ending from historical accounts, Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Philip Foxman (music and lyrics) make the race by The Manhattan Project scientists to build a working bomb before the Germans and their later attempt to keep the U.S. government from testing it by dropping it on Japan a tale that keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat. The fine cast includes such well-known featured players as Euan Morton, Randy Harrison, Jonathan Hammond and Sara Gettelfinger, as well as Jeremy Kushnier who should be better known in the future.
Atomic takes as its protagonist Hungarian-born physicist Leo Szilard who conceived and took out patents on the nuclear chain reaction, the cyclotron, the linear accelerator and the electron microscope. Unfortunately for him, he did not build these devices and other scientists won their Nobel Prizes based on his work. The musical is narrated by J. Robert Oppenheimer who tells Leo’s story in flashbacks to government investigators during his own security hearing in 1954. “If I am the father of the Atomic bomb, then Leo is its prodigal son,” Oppenheimer declares. The story then travels back to London, 1933, where Leo hears a lecture by Nobel Prize winning physicist Lord Rutherford on the impossibility of a nuclear chain reaction, and he suddenly conceives the idea of how to do it.
Leo and his doctor wife Trude move to New York in 1938 to join Italian Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi to carry out atomic research at Columbia University. Hearing from friends in Europe about the plight of the Jews in concentration camps, he drafts a letter for his mentor Albert Einstein to send to President Roosevelt which results in The Manhattan Project. When the project moves to Chicago, Leo is confronted with two problems: his wife has just received a promotion at her hospital and can’t follow him, and once there he is hampered by the military bureaucracy of Nobel Prize winner Arthur Compton who is the liaison between the scientists and General Grove, in command of the entire atomic research. The project moves to Los Alamos where Leo meets Oppenheimer and begs him not to test the bomb and run the risk of setting the atmosphere on fire.
The second act deals with Leo’s realization that the military is planning to test the bomb by dropping it over Japan which will kill thousands of innocent people and Leo’s attempt to get enough signatures to convince the president to announce the creation of the bomb but not to use it. This half deals with the ethics of science and the differing opinions of the scientists involved, as well as Leo’s problems with the military for going over the head of his superior. Throughout Atomic is the story of the effect on Leo and Trude’s marriage of the geographic separation as well as the emotional toll weighing on Leo’s conscience for helping to create such a destructive weapon. Both acts include a scene of a recently married, young Japanese couple making future plans just before the bomb is dropped in a flash of white light, created by lighting designer David Finn with the help of special effects designer Gregory Meeh.
Atomic is powerful, provocative and forceful in its storytelling. However, in its present form it still needs some tweaking. We are given no timeline or dates so that it is difficult to know when these events occur. Although we are told that Trude is Leo’s wife, they do not appear to live together, nor is it clear whether they are married when they arrive in New York or simply engaged. While the rear part of the setting by Neil Patel cleverly approximates the periodic table in three dimensional scaffolding, the scenes are changed in the foreground by sliding blank screens across the stage that meet in the middle and then are parted to reveal the next scene. As these screens leads us to expect video or at least projections which fail to materialize, this effect is very misleading as well as distracting. The story of Leo and Trude is given short shrift due to the amount of material that has to be covered. It might have been better to have attempted to recreate less history but in greater depth.
The pop-rock score by Ginges, Bonsignore and Foxman is a pleasing mix of impassioned ballads, comic numbers, and ensemble choruses, as well as some witty pastiches of period music. These include the powerful ensemble numbers “Light Up the World,” “The Bar Song,” and the climactic number, “What I Tell Myself (To Sleep at Night).” Each of the main characters has an ardent and heartfelt solo: Oppenheimer’s “Seminal Tale,” Trude’s “Headlights,” Tibbets’ “Stars and Stripes,” Leo’s “One Day” and Compton’s “Method to Madness.” The writers have also found a place for two hilarious comic songs: Fermi’s “America Amore,” a paean to the good life in New York for this hearty Italian, and “The Holes in the Donuts,” a homage to the Andrews Sisters with a boogie-woogie style number sung by the three women in the cast as workers at the Oak Ridge plant sworn to secrecy about their work on the project.
Under the firm direction of Damien Gray (also responsible for the musical staging), the cast is uniformly fine, despite some clichéd or underwritten roles. Jeffrey Kushnier is a stalwart hero as the conflicted (though humorless) Szilard, on the right side of every issue, but too ethical to accept compromise. As his understanding wife Trude, Sarah Gettelfinger is sympathetic and compassionate. Jonathan Hammond has great fun with the expansive, womanizing Enrico Fermi, more than a bit stereotyped in its portrayal of this Italian with the joy of life. Randy Harrison makes two totally different characters out of his portrayals of the ambitious physicist Edward Teller and the outspoken Air Force pilot Paul Tibbets, best known for flying Enola Gay, the plane which dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. As the only woman scientist among the men, Alexis Fishman’s Leona Woods is clear-sighted, independent and forthright. On the other hand, David Abeles as Arthur Compton, the scientist/bureaucrat who ran the Chicago division of The Manhattan Project, seems a bit bland in a position of great power. Euan Morton, probably the best known actor in the cast from his performances in Broadway’s Taboo, Cyrano de Bergerac and Sondheim on Sondheim, is off stage more than the other characters but gives J. Robert Oppenheimer a cunning and sarcastic edge that immediately defines this scientific genius.
While it has a few kinks to work out, it is a remarkable musical that takes on serious questions of our time and works them out in the course of its 19 songs. It is a grown up musical for adults and takes its big questions seriously. It grabs you by the throat from the beginning and never lets up for a moment. And it has a remarkable urgency that will make your pulse race – even though the final outcome is history.
Atomic (through August 16, 2014)
Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row, 419 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes with one intermission