A musical about the creation of the atomic bomb? Sounds crazy, no? Well then, try imagining it as a hard-driving rock operetta in the vein of a 1980s mega-musical. Then you're closer to Atomic, which features music and lyrics by Philip Foxman and book and lyrics by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore. Not only is the highly polished product, now playing at Theater Row's Acorn Theater, compulsively watchable, but it features a cast of Broadway stalwarts that blow the roof off the theater with bombshell performances.
The events of Atomic are told as flashback episodes narrated by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Euan Morton), as he testifies in front of the United States Atomic Energy Commission in 1954 regarding his communist leanings. Oppenheimer's own motive is to tell the story of Leo Szilard (Jeremy Kushnier), the Hungarian physicist whose patents on the nuclear chain reaction, as well as the nuclear reactor, resulted in the formation of the Manhattan Project's development of the A-bomb.
Ginges and Bonsignore have done their research, and their book is one of the most intelligent to come around in recent memory. They manage to make a relatively complex chunk of history digestible in a way that doesn't oversimplify its events. They've also crafted a compelling, heartfelt secondary story about the relationship between Szilard and his wife Trude (Sara Gettelfinger).
However, as you watch the show, you may find yourself asking why the story of the Manhattan Project was made into, of all things, a musical. Thought most of the Atomic's songs are tuneful, its banal lyrics rarely match the astuteness of the book. These characters don't need song to tell their story. That's certainly true in the case of the show's scientist Enrico Firmi, played by the hilarious Jonathan Hammond, whose first-act samba, "America Amore," stops the show dead in its tracks, despite being well performed. The show is enhanced by musicalization only at the very end, as the group of scientists (including Alexis Fishman's Leona Woods) deal with the aftermath of the bomb's deployment and subsequent devastation. This moment, captured in the song "What I Tell Myself," is stunning.
You may also wonder why the writers decided on the style of a bombastic European rock operetta. Watching David Finn's flashing strobe lights move around Neil Patel's honeycomb set evokes the turntable in Les Misérables and the helicopter in Miss Saigon. In this case, the coup de théâtre is the atomic bomb.
Despite these curious aesthetic choices, at two and a half hours Atomic is always entertaining. Its flaws do not extend to the cast, assembled by director Damien Gray in a brilliant ensemble. Particularly impressive is Kushnier, whose performance as Szilard is deeply, recognizably human. Not only does the music, played by a tight band of seven, fit his range perfectly, but his voice does not seem to have aged a day since he played Ren in the original Broadway production of Footloose. Atomic is worth seeing for him alone.