A long forgotten but important historical figure gets his due in the zealous rock musical "Atomic," which bursts with passionate performances, an expressive score and combustible conversations.
New Line Theatre's smart production features a synergetic ensemble fully committed to telling this complex, fascinating story about Leo Szilard. We Americans should know of him, but unfortunately many of us don't.
Call this thoughtful, accessible work by Australian book writer/lyricist Danny Ginges and composer Philip Foxman a noble public service and a surprising, welcome eye-opener.
Szilard, a Hungarian Jew, conceived nuclear chain reaction in 1933, but after Hitler became Germany's chancellor, fled to London, then to America. He patented a nuclear reactor with Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, and became part of the super-secret Manhattan Project with other brilliant scientists at the University of Chicago.
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This government-funded research led to the development of the atomic bomb in World War II. After V-E Day, with the Germans defeated, Szilard didn't see the need to drop Fat Man and Little Boy, but the government went ahead with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, despite his petition drive against it.
Because of Leo's opposition, his impact and contributions have been downplayed in that pivotal moment in history. But he is responsible for a major medical breakthrough — radiation for cancer treatment, after curing his bladder cancer in 1960 with a regimen he designed. He also suggested a phone hotline between the White House and the Kremlin.
Physicists may seem like an unlikely musical vessel, but the fortuitous pairing of Ginges and Foxman bring to light the moral dilemmas the scientists faced.
Directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy have shrewdly staged the local premiere of the relatively new musical, which debuted in 2013 in Australia, off-Broadway in 2014, reworked back home, then presented this past March in Detroit.
To invest the audience in the emotional arc, seating is on two sides for an in-the-round feel. Rob Lippert's scenic design emphasizes functional space for easy interaction among the characters.
The band, under Jeffrey Richard Carter's expert direction, is cleverly positioned behind a façade. They superbly performed Foxman's nuanced orchestrations — Carter on piano, D. Mike Bauer on guitar, Adam Rugo on guitar and keyboard, Eric Bateman on cello, Jake Stergos on bass, Twinda Murry on violin and Clancy Newell on percussion.
New Line veterans smoothly handle the demands of their roles, with Zachary Allen Farmer intense as the serious genius Leo, whose mind was always one step ahead.
He leads several group numbers, including "Little Fire," "A Risk You Take," and "Greater Battle." The vocally gifted cast shines when blending harmonies, and their storytelling abilities infuse the numbers with urgency and meaning.
Graceful Ann Hier is fervent as Leo's eventual wife Trude Weiss, always his rock through the tumultuous years. Her ballad "Headlights" is beautifully delivered, and the couple's duets "The Force That Lights the Stars" and "Where is Home?" are poignant.
Ryan Scott Foizey is fiery as the determined, commanding project leader Arthur Compton, a Nobel Prize winner wrestling with the scientific and the moral conundrums. His "World of Gray" song is forceful and its words linger.
Larissa White portrays crucial character Leona Woods, the youngest and only woman on the project, with verve. She skillfully leads the cast in "Atom Smasher" and is memorable in "What I Tell Myself."
Jeffrey M. Wright seamlessly shifts from the arrogant J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos laboratory, conveying his hubris, to Paul Tibbets, the gung-ho Enola Gay pilot. "Stars and Stripes" is a strong solo, as is his part in "Only Numbers."
Sean Michael, as Hungarian Edward Teller, and Reynaldo Arceno, as Italian Enrico Fermi, must employ thick accents which is a challenging task. Their vocals stand out — Arceno on "There Are Lines" and both on "Dark Days.".
Victoria Valentine moves fluidly between three parts — bartender, scientist and factory worker. The three women are delightful in the Andrews Sisters-inspired factory number, "Holes in the Doughnuts," one of the genuine comedic moments.
The astute lighting design by Rob Lippert and savvy sound design by Benjamin Rosemann also enhance this true story. The women wear Sarah Porter's vintage costumes well.
"Atomic" is a highly dramatic equation that adds up to an insightful and reflective show, allowing New Line to reveal another facet of its range, this time focusing on science while projecting a very powerful, bigger picture.
- Who: New Line Theatre
- When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, June 9-11, 16-18, 23-25
- Where: Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis (Grand Center)
- Information and tickets: www.NewLineTheatre.com or MetroTix: 314-534-1111