Atomic

NIDA Parades Theatres, November 18

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photography

The life of Hungarian-American physicist Leo Szilard, who was involved with the development of the atomic bomb, is a dark but meaty subject for a musical with plenty of emotional and moral complexity.

However, the new musical Atomic – which is currently playing its world premiere season in Sydney – attempts to cover so much ground while telling his story in linear biographical fashion (apart from an opening scene featuring two young Japanese lovers torn asunder as the bomb falls) that it doesn’t have the depth or impact that it might.

Born in 1898 in Hungary to Jewish parents, Szilard trained as a physicist in Germany but was forced to flee the Nazis with his wife-to-be Trude, going first to England and then to America.

Having conceived the idea of nuclear chain reaction in 1933, he patented the first nuclear reactor with Italian physicist Enrico Fermi and was co-opted to work on The Manhattan Project where he was involved with developing the atomic bomb that was dropped on Japan, despite his own grave misgivings.

After World War II, his work included the development of radiation therapy to treat cancer (which he himself suffered) – something that the musical counterpoints with his guilt about the lives lost in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Written by Australian Danny Ginges and American Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Australian Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), Atomic traces Szilard’s life from 1933, throwing in such a welter of incidents, characters, themes and ideas that in processing all the information (some of which isn’t really necessary) we aren’t able to focus enough on the character of Szilard, his relationship with the loyal Trude as he puts science ahead of family, or the moral dilemma at the heart of the piece.

Running close to three hours, it feels as if the writers weren’t quite sure how to end it either. Towards the end of the show there’s a powerful song called “What I Tell Myself” about the guilt that all Szilard’s colleagues are feeling as they lie awake at night, then on we go with yet more biographical narrative followed by a ballad for Trude about her love for her husband, which is beautiful but completely out of place at that point.

There’s plenty of interest in there but it needs a tighter focus (a restructure away from straightforward biography perhaps) to really engage you with the characters and themes.

Musically, the score is predominantly rock-based, much of it catchy and some of it rousing. There’s also an Andrews Sisters-like song, clearly inspired by “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” as well as Yiddish and Broadway influences. However, a comic number called “America Amore” sung by Fermi sits oddly – an all-too-obvious bid for light relief that doesn’t come off despite David Whitney’s energetic performance.

For this premiere season, American director Damien Gray helms a well-staged, small-scale production featuring excellent performances by a cast of seven. Neil Patel’s set with its scaffolding and sliding screens that quickly create different spaces as well as moving trains, boats and planes is effective, with dramatic lighting by Niklas Pajanti while Emma Kingsbury’s costumes are terrific.

The actors commit whole-heartedly and do a marvellous job, dealing admirably with sound problems on opening night. Michael Falzon is in fine voice as Szilard and gives a sensitive performance that drives the show emotionally. He is well matched by Bronwyn Mulcahy as Szilard’s wife, who also sings beautifully. Blake Erickson, Simon Brook McLachlan, Lana Nesnas, Christy Sullivan and David Whitney are all excellent in a range of cameos and ensemble roles.

Atomic has enough going for it to see that it has potential. As it stands now, it’s a long night that never quite soars, but it is well worth future development.

Atomic plays at NIDA Parades Theatres until November 30. Bookings: ticketek.com.au or 1300 795 012

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