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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Angels in America review

Belvoir St Theatre, June 1

Luke Mullins and Paula Arundell. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Luke Mullins and Paula Arundell. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Set in the 1980s during the Reagan era and the AIDS epidemic, Tony Kushner’s epic, two-part drama Angels in America was a landmark piece of theatre when it premiered in 1991.

First seen in Sydney in 1993, the social and political context has changed but the human dilemmas in the play still resonate powerfully in this very special Belvoir production directed by Eamon Flack.

Subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Angels in America tells the cleverly meshed stories of several different characters, connected through other people that they meet either in real life or hallucinations.

In Greenwich Village, a young man called Prior Walter (Luke Mullins) has full-blown AIDS – as does Roy Cohn (Marcus Graham), the real-life, notoriously corrupt Republic lawyer. But where Prior, an ex-drag queen, is out and proud, the aggressive, tough-talking Cohn insists that he is dying of liver cancer because homosexuals have “zero clout” and he therefore cannot be one.

Unable to cope with Prior’s escalating sickness, his Jewish boyfriend Louis (Mitchell Butel) leaves him, becoming involved with Joe Pitt (Ashley Zukerman), a closeted, Mormon and protégé of Cohn’s with a pill-popping wife called Harper.

Angels in America is a thrillingly daring, imaginative, humanist play that combines political, social, religious and environmental themes with wonderful flights of fancy including an angel who declares Prior a prophet.

Michael Hankin has designed a stark, beige-tiled set, which works brilliantly for a play that moves between Central Park, Antarctica, Salt Lake City, hospitals and heaven among other locations.

On this open space, Flack directs a crystal clear production that flows seamlessly. He uses the space superbly and has choreographed the scene changes with economical precision. Characters in hallucinations arrive and depart with a cheek toss of glitter, while the arrival of the angel is a glorious explosion of colour and sound.

Perched on a stepladder in a slightly underwhelming costume, the first glimpse of the angel is a bit of a letdown after the Spielberg-like build-up to her revelation, but that’s a minor quibble.

In every other way Mel Page’s costumes, Niklas Pajanti’s lighting and Alan John’s music add to a superbly staged production.

The casting could hardly be better with all the actors working together as a finely tuned ensemble. Mullins gives a deeply sympathetic performance as Prior that embraces his camp wit, fear and fortitude, while his skinny physique makes the ravages of AIDS-related illnesses painfully believable. It’s a performance so truthful it hurts to watch.

Graham is also superb as the demonic Cohn, conveying his physical disintegration so convincingly his face seems to become a stretched death mask.

Marcus Graham as Roy Cohn. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Marcus Graham as Roy Cohn. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Butel captures the guilt-ridden angst of Louis, whose mind and mouth are forever racing, while McMahon gives a touchingly warm, sweetly funny, poignant portrayal of Harper, whose fears about the destruction of the ozone layer and Joe’s true nature/sexuality tip her into Valium-induced hallucinations.

There are also excellent performances from Zukerman as Joe, Paula Arundell as a nurse and the angel, DeObia Oparei as Belize, a black drag queen who is a friend of Prior’s and a nurse caring for Cohn, and Robyn Nevin in a series of roles including a rabbi, doctor and Bolshevik as well as Joe’s Mormon mother and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg who visits Cohn.

Part 1, Millennium Approaches, runs nearly four hours but zips by. It really is a contemporary classic. Part II, Perestroika, feels a little slow to start – but that’s in the writing rather than the production.

You can see both parts in one day (which I’d recommend) or separately. Either way, by the end of the seven hours of theatre (plus four intervals), you have gone on an extraordinary journey with the characters. You have laughed and cried with them, and shared their struggles, fears, anxiety, heartaches and joys.

Despite all the world problems canvassed by the play, you feel elated at the end, sharing its defiant optimism. 

Belvoir St Theatre until July 14; Theatre Royal, July 18 – 28

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 9