“ATOMIC” is the unlikely musical now playing at Meadow Brook Theatre that features the unsung hero of The Manhattan Project, Leo Szilard. A brilliant Hungarian physicist, Szilard studied under Albert Einstein in Berlin and was among the first to urge fellow Jews to leave Nazi Germany. In 1933 he made his way to London and there first conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction and the unimaginable levels of energy that could be released by splitting the atom. Realizing that England would quickly become embroiled in war, he moved on to the United States, where he became a citizen and worked with Enrico Fermi on groundbreaking nuclear physics and, ultimately, on The Manhattan Project.
The musical is the work of two Australians: ad man Danny Ginges wrote the book and Philip Foxman composed the music; the two collaborated on the lyrics. With such songs as, “The Force That Lights the Stars,” the authors manage to touch on what is romantic in the world of hard science – the notion of infinite possibility. Ultimately, that’s what makes “Atomic” work. In Leo Szilard, they give us a dedicated scientist with the vision to understand how his ideas could change the world. But Leo is poised to become a classically tragic hero – because while striving for the good of mankind, his brilliant discoveries are used as the ultimate weapon of doom.
Meadow Brook Theatre Artistic Director Travis Walter discovered the play two years ago and knew that this untold story should be shared with Michigan audiences. “I saw ‘ATOMIC’ in New York,” says Walter. “It was such an important time in history. No one working on the Manhattan Project could say what they were doing. These people were ultimately responsible for so much destruction, but they were trying to save lives. To see what this did to them—and have it done as a rock musical—was fascinating. I couldn’t wait to get it here!”
The music is terrific, thanks to Musical Director Andy Peterson, who also plays first synthesizer. His hard-working band consists of Paul Clauson on 2nd Synthesizer and guitar, Sig Hepler on guitar, Allison Rhoades on violin, Joan Hovda on cello, Timothy D. Martuch on bass, and Nick Matthews on percussion. The contemporary score – with at least one nod to the Andrews Sisters’ style of ‘40s music – is upbeat and uplifting.
And the cast delivers the goods in both the acting and singing departments – not an easy task, given that they are portraying actual, historical figures. Figures, we might add, who are physicists—not people we generally think of as bursting into song.
Meadow Brook favorite Ron Williams is Leo Szilard, and he beautifully voices the passion that fuels Szilard’s relentless genius. Stephanie Wahl is the love interest, Trude Weiss, a successful physician who balances her own career with the manic demands of Leo’s obsession. Tobin Hissong is General Groves; Lucas Wells is both Edward Teller and Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets; Chip DuFord is Arthur Compton; Rusty Mewha is J. Robert Oppenheimer; Richard Marlatt is Enrico Fermi; Katy Kujala is Leona Woods; Kimberly Alley is Mac, and Garrett Michael Harris, along with the rest of the ensemble, fills out several roles.
“ATOMIC” is a deeply satisfying look at American history and a reminder that we cannot ignore the ongoing tension between science and politics, nor the moral obligations stretched between them. This is an adult-focused story, but it’s certainly appropriate for young people with the maturity and understanding to appreciate the forces at play. We all know how the big story plays out – with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But this musical offers us a final look at the scientists who made it happen, how they coped in the aftermath of the war, and what discoveries were still waiting in their futures.
The play is directed by Travis W. Walter, supported by Terry Carpenter as the stage manager. Set design is by Brian Kessler, costumes are by Liz Goodall, lighting is by Reid G. Johnson and sound is by Mike Duncan. You can catch this the regional premiere of “ATOMIC” at Meadow Brook Theatre, on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, where it runs through March 6, 2016. Performances are scheduled Wednesdays through Sundays with a variety of curtain times; check the website’s calendar for options. Tickets range from $27 to $42 and are available by calling the Meadow Brook Theatre box office at 248-377-3300 or going online at Ticketmaster. Student discounts are available at the box office. Groups of eight or more should call 248-370-3316 for group pricing.