Near the end of Atomic, a musical about the making of the atom bomb, there is an arresting piece of stagecraft when the bomb at Hiroshima goes off: A Japanese couple were quietly speaking at home in front of Japanese sliding screen doors when suddenly there is a flash of blinding light and deafening noise, and a man bursts through the screens… and kills them.
His action is metaphorical, for this is the character — an American immigrant Jewish scientist – that we’ve learned was most responsible for the development of the bomb. No, this is not Albert Einstein, nor Robert Oppenheimer. He is a man few have heard of – Leo Szilard
It was Szilard who convinced his teacher Einstein to send a letter to FDR about the real danger that the Nazis would develop an atomic weapon. This led to the creation of the Manhattan Project, in which Szilard played a prominent role.
But it was also Szilard who, once the bomb was developed, drafted a petition (now called the Szilard Petition) — and got 70 of his fellow Manhattan Project scientists to sign it – urging Truman to demonstrate the power of the bomb rather than use it on a population.
Later, Szilard was diagnosed with cancer, and developed a treatment based on radiation that completely eliminated his cancer – a treatment that is still used today.
Leo Szilard, in short, was a remarkable person. One sees why the creative team of “Atomic” would want to dramatize both his life and the mindboggling dilemmas that he and the other scientists faced.
The very richness of the story of the Manhattan Project and its aftermath, however, explains both the strengths and the flaws of the musical.
“Atomic” is well-acted and exceptionally well-designed (kudos to a design team that includes Neil Patel, sets; Emma Kinsbury, costumes; David Finn, lighting; Jon Weston, sound; and Gregory Meem, special effects.) Director Damien Gray stages it competently. It is a largely intelligent effort with worthwhile and thought-provoking moments. But those moments are sprinkled among a bombardment of details that wind up being difficult to absorb.
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Jeremy Kushnier gives a strong portrayal of the passionate and conflicted Szilard. But he must make room for other strong characters. Euan Morton is excellent as J. Robert Oppenheimer, who serves for much of the musical as a narrator, providing much-needed exposition by answering questions posed by an interrogator we assume works for the House Un-American Activities Committee (though pivotal to the development of the bomb, Oppenheimer lost his security clearance during the Red Scare of the 1950s.) There is the intriguing figure of Leona Woods (persuasively portrayed by Alexis Fishman), who was frequently mistaken for a secretary, but was herself a nuclear physicist, the only female member of the Manhattan Project.
David Abeles as Arthur Compton, the scientist who was initially put in charge of the project as the liaison with the military, delivers some of the most pointed lyrics in Method to Madness, one of the show’s 16 songs composed by Philip Foxman in a variety of styles (mostly rock ballads.) Also delivering some hard-charging melodies is Randy Harrison, who plays both eager-beaver physicist Edward Teller, and the gung-ho pilot who drops the bomb on Japan, Paul Tibbets. The three women in the cast, Fishman, Grace Stockdale and Sara Gettelfinger play Rosie the Riveter type Los Alamos workers who deliver a delightful Andrews Sisters-like ditty “The Holes in the Donuts,” explaining that they have no idea what they’re working on.
Gettelfinger also plays Szilard’s wife Trude, and does a fine job of it, although one suspects her overly large part exists mostly to force a greater focus on Szilard. This doesn’t quite work; his interaction with her too often just seems a distraction.
All this is well-intentioned, and overwhelming. There is nothing inherently wrong with taking on so much: After all, “All The Way” was another history lesson with a parade of characters and incidents. But it was better dramatized and easier to follow. Some choices in “Atomic,” though, reveal a breakdown in judgment, such as the decision to turn the Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi into an Italian-accented lecherous figure of comic relief.
One suspects this lapse was an effort to enliven what the creators might have feared was an overly intellectual endeavor. But one could argue that “Atomic” is not intellectual enough – while there are a few quick and incomprehensible speeches about atomic energy, we are almost as much in the dark about what the scientists were doing as those Rosie the Riveters.
at Theater Row (410 West 42nd Street)
Book & Lyrics: Danny Ginges & Gregory Bonsignore
Music & Lyrics: Philip Foxman
Music Producer: Christopher Jahnke
Music Director: Andrew Peterson
Direction / Musical Staging: Damien Gray
Scenic design: Neil Patel, costume design: Emma Kinsbury, lighting design: David Finn, sound design: Jon Weston, special effects design: Gregory Meem
Cast: David Abeles, Alexis Fishman, Sara Gettelfinger, Jonathan Hammond, Randy Harrison, Jeremy Kushnier, James David Larson, Euan Morton, Grace Stockdale
Running time: 2 1/2 hours including one 15 minute intermission.
Ticket prices: $69.25