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In Einstein's Dreams, a Young Albert Einstein Has Visions of Time and Love

Joanne Sydney Lessner and Joshua Rosenblum's adaptation of Alan Lightman's bestselling novel comes to 59E59 Theaters.

Zal Owen plays Albert Einstein, and Brennan Caldwell plays his best friend Besso in Einstein's Dreams.
(© Richard Termine)

Making a musical about Albert Einstein's discovery of his theory of relativity seems like a daunting endeavor to begin with, so points to Joanne Sydney Lessner and Joshua Rosenblum, the creators of the musical Einstein's Dreams, for daring, at the very least. But then imagine the least interesting ways of dramatizing both the process and the theory itself, and you have an idea where this musical — being presented in its New York City premiere by Prospect Theater Company at 59E59 Theaters — goes wrong.

Einstein's Dreams is based on a bestselling 1992 novel by Alan Lightman that revolves around the fictional conceit that, while still a patent clerk in Berne, Switzerland, in 1905, Einstein had a dream each night that helped lead him to the formulation of his revolutionary theory. While they've retained the episodic structure of Lightman's book, Lessner and Rosenblum have come up with their own additional character: Josette (Alexandra Silber), a mysterious woman who pops into the dreams of the then-26-year-old Einstein (Zal Owen) one evening, and teases him in subsequent dreams not only scientifically, but also romantically. With Einstein feeling increasingly estranged from his wife, Mileva (Tess Primack), he's emotionally susceptible to this brainy siren's song.

Zal Owen, Alexandra Silber, Stacia Fernandez, Vishal Vaidya, Michael McCoy, and Lisa Helmi Johanson star in Einstein's Dreams at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Richard Termine)

It seems too easy to lean on soap-operatic intrigue to try to make a forbidding scientific concept "accessible" to the layperson. Worse, though, are the ways Lessner and Rosenblum oversimplify Einstein's theory to suit their dramatic purposes. Relativity is used here as a threadbare justification for flashbacks and flash-forwards — for Josette to both remind Einstein of moments from his own past (as in "Now Backwards Moving Is Time," in which Einstein ruefully remembers his courtship of Mileva, presented in reverse chronological order) and show him moments from his future (as in "Letter to Roosevelt," where he reckons with the positive and negative effects of publicly revealing his theory). It all feels insultingly reductive for a theory that offered a truly paradigm-shifting way of viewing the world.

It's a shame, because there are flashes of genuine wit in Rosenblum's score: some daringly dissonant harmonies reflective of atonal trends in classical music in the 1910s and '20, as well as an ironically upbeat "Relativity Rag" in which a future Einstein despairs at his inability to actually get his adoring public to understand the theory that cemented his reputation. A few other numbers also offer passing heady delights in the ways they playfully musicalize some of the possibilities inherent in Einstein's flexible way of looking at time: "The Red Hat" splits Einstein into three as he ponders his possible futures with Josette; while "If You Wait One Moment, I'll Check" imagines a world in which everyone lives strictly in the present, shorn of any memories of the past.

Zal Owen, Vishal Vaidya, and Michael McCoy star in Joanne Sydney Lesner and Joshua Rosenblum's musical Einstein's Dreams.
(© Richard Termine)

The whole score has been given elegant orchestrations by Rosenblum and Tim Peierls, performed beautifully by a six-piece chamber orchestra led by pianist Milton Granger. Similarly elegant is director Cara Reichel's production itself. Isabel Mengyuan Le's impressively detailed and evocative set is dominated by a large clock that also acts as a screen for both the silhouettes cast by Herrick Goldman's lighting design and David Bengali's projection designs. Bengali's imaginatively surreal projections deserve a special mention, with a flying nightingale projected onto a white sheet held by some of the actors offering a particularly memorable effect. And the cast certainly puts the material across with full conviction: Alexandra Silber, as Josette, brings palpable romantic heat to a role that sadly requires not much else; while Brennan Caldwell offers a grounded down-to-earth presence as Einstein's best friend Besso alongside Owen's desperate, impassioned Einstein.

As visually entrancing as Reichel's production is, though, it's not quite enough to turn thudding prose into soaring poetry. "This theory is going to change how people see the world," Besso excitedly proclaims in the show's closing moments. If only Einstein's Dreams were imaginative enough to change the way we look at the possibilities of musical theater.

Stacia Fernandez, Tess Primack, Zal Owen, and Lisa Helmi Johanson star in Einstein's Dreams, running through December 15 at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Richard Termine)
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