Atomic, the new musical currently playing at NIDA’s Parade Theatre, is all about Dr. Leo Szilard, who invited and patented the nuclear chain reaction, and worked on the Manhattan Project – that is, developing the atomic bomb, and its subsequent drop in Japan.
We follow Szilard (Michael Falzon) from Berlin to the United States, meeting his wife, family, and colleagues along the way; it is a blur of a biographical account of a life very importantly lived, and laced with ethical concern.
It’s also a little too much to take, a little too heavy-handed (the exploding goat wasn’t really necessary) and a little too reliant on guitar to reflect inner conflict, but there’s promise there, a gem underneath the surface.
The problem with the show is in its narrative. It attempts to tell too big a story: Szilard’s life prior to moving into nuclear physics; the creation of the atomic bomb; the aftermath of the phsysicists’ lives once the bombs had been dropped; Szilard’s role in implementing radiation therapy for cancer treatment; the ‘enemies’ both in Japan and in Germany. The result is scatter-shot; it’s hard to care about any one of these factors when they don’t have the room or time to establish themselves and breathe.
The most interesting plot thread may have been contained in a number late in the show – those involved in the Manhattan Project sitting together at a table, sharing stories of how they sleep at night, and what they tell their children. This is a fresh story with the right emotional heft for a musical; it could have easily and successfully been the primary story of the show.
Also promising was a lovely break in the rock-driven contemporary score thanks to Andrews-Sisters style number; sort of the munitions’ factory workers’ response to ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’. Well-arranged and period-appropriate, it was a highlight of the night.
It’s an interesting story and concept, physically well-executed. Sound problems on the night were easily eclipsed and forgotten – Blake Erickson sang his song un-miced and undaunted, which was a pleasure to hear, and staging by Neil Patel that evokes a periodic table along with flashy lighting by Niklas Pajanti bumped up the energy of the piece. When coupled with smoke machines, the production had created for itself a successfully slick veneer.
It is left to the actors to imbue the stage with emotional realism and humanity, and they do the job admirably. Michael Falzon is in fine voice and his tenor manages to be both sure of itself and tinged with a hint of vulnerability – it’s his singing more than his acting that gives Szilard his likability.
Erickson, Christy Sullivan, and Simon Brook McLachlan, who all play multiple roles, are strong, well-connected to the tone of the show, and keep the show feeling dynamic even with its minimal staging and set; they are passionate performers and the show is better for having them.
The real draw in the cast, though, is Bronwyn Mulcahy. As Szilard’s wife Trude she is wilful, romantic, and her voice is stunning. Her 11 o’clock number is undoubtedly the best one in the show, but might have made more sense towards the end of the first act, to remind the audiences of her sidelined life after her argument with Szilard over his long working hours. Still, it is a beautiful number, and while Mulcahy and Falzon sing harmoniously together, nothing can come close to the magic Mulcahy makes when she soars vocally solo.
There is something to Atomic – it hasn’t found itself yet, but it should keep looking. With more care and finesse, it could be much better.