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Atomic
Book and Lyrics by Danny Ginges, Music and Lyrics by Philip Foxman
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre
April 4, 2016

Ann Hier, Zachary Allen Farmer Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Ann Hier, Zachary Allen Farmer
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The development of the first atomic bomb was certainly a world-changing moment in history, bringing with it much moral questioning and tragedy amid the quest for scientific innovation. In New Line Theatre’s latest production, Atomic, the story of the bomb’s development isn’t simply a history lesson. It’s a character study of some of the key people involved as well as a morality play examining the capabilities, demands, and limits of scientific research. It’s also an extremely well-staged, well-cast, compelling piece of theatre.

Although several of the major players in the development of the atomic bomb in the United States are featured in this play, the focus is primarily on Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard (Zachary Allen Farmer), whose thirst for knowledge is tempered by his concern about the potential catastrophic danger of such a weapon. The musical follows Szilard through his journey from his home country to England and finally to the United States, accompanied by his companion and eventual wife, physician Trude Weiss (Ann Hier). As World War II progresses and rumors of the German government’s work on the development of a nuclear weapon are spread, Szilard becomes involved with the now well-known Manhattan Project, working with fellow scientists to develop a bomb before the Germans are able to succeed with theirs. Szilard works alongside other notable scientists from around the world, including Italian Enrico Fermi (Reynaldo Arceno), fellow Hungarian Edward Teller (Sean Michael), and Americans Arthur Compton (Ryan Scott Foizey), Leona Woods (Larissa White), and J. Robert Oppenheimer (Jeffrey M. Wright). As the work on the project progresses, questions arise about the need for this weapon, especially after Germany surrenders. The concerned Szilard finds himself turning activist, determined to prevent the bomb’s being dropped on a Japanese city amid pressures from the US government and some of his fellow scientists to support the effort.

Although this play certainly employs a degree of dramatic license in portraying its characters’ stories, the overall focus of this story is on the ethics more than the simple historical facts. The show raises some compelling questions, such as whether or not the mere ability to make something so dangerous justifies its use, and what the motivation should be in the quest for scientific innovation.  Atomic energy certainly changed the world, but was it for better or worse, or somehow both?  These are all profound questions, personified in Atomic by Szilard and his colleagues and portrayed through the use of a rock-influenced score with occasional elements of 1940’s-era themes, such as the Andrews Sisters-esque “Holes In the Doughnuts” sung by Hier, White, and Victoria Valentine as a trio of factory workers. There are also memorable power-ballads such as “The Force That Lights the Stars” and the memorable and oft-reprised “Greater Battle”.

The key role of Szilard is played by the versatile New Line veteran Farmer with convincing sincerity and strong, powerful voice. His scenes with the equally excellent Hier as the loving and long-suffering Trude are a notable highlight. There are also strong performances from Foizey as the devout Compton, who struggles with reconciling his faith with his scientific endeavors; as well as White as the determined Woods, Arceno as Fermi, and Wright in a dual role as Oppenheimer and bomber pilot Paul Tibbets. As usual with New Line, the singing is top-notch, as is the musicianship of the excellent band led by musical director Jeffrey Richard Carter.

The show is also superbly presented in a technical sense, with a cleverly set-up stage in which the audience sits on either side of Rob Lippert’s well-appointed set.  The period details and atmosphere are apparent in the furnishings as well as in Sarah Porter’s stylish costumes. There’s also Lippert’s spectacular lighting and Benjamin Rosenman’s excellent sound, which are put to remarkably effective use in recreating the chilling effects of the bomb’s detonation.

New Line’s production of Atomic is the show’s St. Louis debut, and only the fourth overall production of this intense, intriguing show. In the hands of directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy, along with the first-rate cast and crew, the show is a fascinating examination of the history of nuclear development as well as a stirring examination of the moral dilemmas inherent in the project. It’s a story that’s sure to provoke much thought and conversation.

Cast of Atomic Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Victoria Valentine, Reynaldo Arceno, Ryan Scott Foizey, Sean Michael, Jeffrey M. Wright, Larissa White Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre’s production of Atomic is scheduled to run at the Marcelle Theatre until June 25, 2016.

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