Just because Atomic is a rock musical about atomic physicists doesn’t mean it’s a case of Mickey and Judy saying, “Hey, gang, let’s build a bomb!” The characters are based on real people who create the first and second atomic bomb. What? You never thought you’d see Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi sing and dance?
The play spans the time from 1933 to 1960 and revolves around Leo Szilard, a physicist who was one of the important but lesser-known contributors to the creation of atomic reactors and thus the bomb. Tracking down the accuracy of historical plays and novels is sometimes interesting but frequently frustrating. The complexity of matching who exactly did what and the accuracy of individual characters doesn’t lend itself to a relatively short and entertaining event. So let us accept that there is plenty of artistic license at work in this play from two Australians, Danny Ginges and Phillip Foxman.
Certainly the idea that immense egos and academic politics – plus non-academic prejudices – exist in laboratories is an accurate one. Anyone who’s had any experience in or near such labs will acknowledge that. So the play is truthful on that level. Individually, however, these characters are not necessarily like the real people they’re named for. Let us accept that and move on.
Leo is Zachary Allen Farmer, in particularly good voice in this role, looking very much like a Hungarian Jewish scientist, all tidy and proper, but prone to intermittently stare into space and think about things that others might miss. The show, quite rightly, belongs to him. He completely fulfills expectations. Trude Weiss, Szilard’s long-time girlfriend who immigrates with him, is Ann Hier, and the duets between the two are some of the best moments of the show. Enrico Fermi (Reynaldo Arceno), like the other scientists, is strong-willed, believes he’s at moral odds with Szilard and misses no opportunity to disagree. Ryan Scott Foizey plays a very stiff-necked Arthur Compton, who taught at Washington University, left to teach at the University of Chicago, worked on the Manhattan Project and returned here after World War II to become the university chancellor.
Sean Michael is Edward Teller, and also plays a general who’s in charge of the Manhattan Project. The only woman to work on the Manhattan Project, Leona Woods, who gets very short shrift in the play, is Larissa Wright. Jeffrey M. Wright wears two hats – literally – as the brash J. Robert Oppenheimer and as Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Tibbets, by the way, lived for a while in Alton and finished high school at Western Military Academy, and it’s puzzling why he exhibits a New York-ish accent in the show.
If one can accept that this isn’t historically accurate, it’s an interesting show, far more about moral dilemmas than anything else, a good portrayal of near-unanswerable questions about justification for nuclear war. How far do we go, and what does it take to stop us? Was Truman lied to when he was told about the bomb?
It’s a good score, melodic and generally quite winning. Occasionally the band drowns out lyrics and even spoken lines. The set, from Rob Lippert, works very well as the black box of the Marcelle Theater is set up for this as facing risers for the audience with the play stretched out between them.
Not easy theater. But quite interesting and very different.
through June 25, 2016
New Line Theatre
3310 Samuel Shepherd Drive