By Daniel Skora
It’s understandable that most people would be skeptical about the appropriateness of a rock musical dealing with the creation of the atomic bomb. Some things, after all, are so monumentally solemn as to be unimaginable as a subject for entertainment. But “Atomic”, currently being presented at Meadow Brook Theatre, is just that: a sensitive, historical, and entertaining look at a piece of history that America and the world seem not to have yet made peace with, and more than likely never will.
The Manhattan Project, as the building of the bomb was called, was so secretive that most who worked on its various components had no idea as to the final purpose of their labors. It began as a race against both time and the Germans, who were thought to be building a bomb of their own. The winner of the race, the country that was first able to harness the power of the atom and be capable of delivering its destructive power, would, it was believed, win the war. In America, the race was an ongoing labor in places like New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and over a dozen other cities. Since its ultimate goal was death and destruction on a scale as yet unheard of on this planet, it wasn’t long before the technological issues surrounding its creation were eclipsed by a whole new set of questions dealing with ethics and morality.
“Atomic” is the creative work of Danny Ginges, who appears to have chucked an impressive career in advertising to listen to his muse. As his profile so ably puts it: “Danny would still be working in advertising today, but the story of the forgotten man behind the atomic bomb has rewritten him”. The forgotten man is Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-born physicist and inventor who conceived the nuclear chain reaction and, along with Enrico Fermi, patented the idea for a nuclear reactor. Szilard was an important part of the Manhattan Project, and Ginges weaves the story of the making of the bomb around him. Here, he’s played by Ron Williams, who nicely interprets the many facets of a man torn between the conflicting demands of a scientifically inquisitive mind and a strict moral compass.
More than the others who played prominent roles in The Manhattan Project, Szilard believed the bomb should only have been employed as a weapon of discouragement and never actually used against a nation. Hence, his name and his contributions often take a back seat to others more famously involved in the project. They include Enrico Fermi (Richard Marlatt), Edward Teller (Lucas Wells), Arthur Compton (Chip DuFord), Robert Oppenheimer (Rusty Mewha), and, representing the military, General Groves (Tobin Hissong). Gertrude (Trude) Weiss played by Stephanie Wahl, was a woman who for years was Szilard’s friend and companion, eventually becoming his wife. She has a significant presence in the story, especially in the first act.
Ginges’ script covers a lot of territory and Meadow Brook’s production, under the direction of Travis W. Walter, is right in step. Walter gets maximum use out of his ten cast members, almost all of whom play multiple parts. Musicals generally bring to mind chorus lines, sequined costumes, and big production numbers. The closest “Atomic” comes to that kind of theatrics is a musical number by three “Rosie the Riveters” (Kimberly Alley, Katy Kujala, and Stephanie Wahl), who perform a song called “Holes in the Donuts”, what employees who worked on the project were told to tell their inquisitive friends and relatives when asked what they were making at their jobs.
The music vibrates, the songs reaching loud, almost bombastic crescendos. The show’s music is by Philip Foxman, with lyrics by Foxman and Ginges. In another reincarnation, the show has all the possibilities of becoming a rock opera. The seven piece band conducted by music director Andy Peterson is visible behind the scaffold-type structure which dominates the stage.
Brian Kessler’s set design has MBT’s proscenium arch covered with huge Scrabble-like tiles containing symbols of elements in the Periodic Table. Since life should be a learning experience no matter where you find yourself, I made a note of the symbol SE and looked it up when I got home. This is what I found. SE: selenium, a non-metal of red crystals discovered in 1817 by Jons J. Berzelius in Stockholm Sweden, atomic number 34 (also the number of protons it has), worldwide annual production of around 600 tons, 10 to 65 mg in the average human body, and it’s used today in photoelectric cells, TV cameras, light meters, copy machines, and anti-dandruff shampoos. Imagine that!
Ginges’ “Atomic” admirably condenses an important, complex story into a manageable, passionate two hours. It’s a history lesson, it’s a rock musical with a dramatic soundtrack, it’s thought provoking, and MBT’s production is a great entertainment.
Costumes for “Atomic” are by Liz Goodall, lighting is by Reid G. Johnson, and sound is by Mike Duncan. The show runs through March 6th. Tickets are available by calling the Meadow Book box office at 248.377.3300 or going online at www.ticketmaster.com. Additional information is available at www.mbtheatre.com. Meadow Brook Theatre is located on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester.