You gotta admire the cojones on anyone who writes a musical called Atomic. I mean, theater critics and their editors can be mean enough with headlines even without such low-hanging fruit.
OK, I'll bite: Atomic is a bomb. Well, that may be a tad too strong, but Atomic is certainly a dud.
Atomic is a new musical currently playing Off-Broadway at New York's Theatre Row, and features a book and lyrics by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore, and music and lyrics by Philip Foxman. Apparently, the show started off in Australia, where it received rather mixed reviews. Why the authors thought the next step was to bring the show to New York City for commercial run is beyond me.
I mean, who's paying for this? The cast features top-notch New York performers, including Jeremy Kushnier, Euan Morton, Sara Gettelfinger, Jonathan Hammond, Randy Harrison, and David Abeles. The producers have enlisted a high-profile marketing and press team. And the set, by Neil Patel, is a gleaming network of metallic cubes and sliding screens that would not be out of place on Broadway. All this while far more worthy musicals languish in obscurity due to lack of production funds.
Atomic attempts to wring dramatic weight from the Manhattan Project, the American race against the Germans to build the atomic bomb. The authors have chosen to focus on these momentous events from the point-of-view of Leó Szilárd, the Hungarian physicist who first formulated the idea of the nuclear chain reaction, which in turn became the basis for the atomic bomb. It's an intriguing premise, but it receives a decidedly clumsy treatment here. Atomic wants to be both searing drama and goofy satire, and is ultimately unsuccessful at both.
The book to Atomic does reflect a certain intelligence, but the dialogue is overly expository, reflecting that "But, of course!" factor prevalent in cheesy '50s horror films. The characters have dramatic realizations without our fully comprehending the significance, complete with sudden jolts of mumbo-jumbo physics talk to establish some science cred. Despite the extremely high stakes of the historical events, Atomic winds up being about the banal concerns of the brilliant. Most of act one seems concerned with the negative effects all this work is having on Szilárd's relationship with his wife, complete with manufactured tension over observing the Jewish sabbath.
I was on the fence about Atomic for the first ten minutes, until we got to "America Amore," a crass would-be comic number that's meant to introduce us to Enrico Fermi, in which poor Jonathan Hammond is forced to slither and slather over a couple of buxom science babes. You know, because that's what Fermi was famous for. But more to the point, it really has nothing to do with Fermi's function in the rest of the narrative; it's just a cheap attempt at injecting some unnecessary comic relief into the show.
There's another howler of a number at the top of act two in which we meet three Rosie the Riveter types (complete with literal "We Can Do It!" costumes) who are assembling the pieces of the atomic bomb, although they don't know that's what they're doing. So, they shrug and relate quite gleefully, in tight Andrews-Sisters-style harmony, that all they're told is that they "make the holes in the donuts."
It's not really clear why this material needed to be a musical in the first place. At numerous times throughout Atomic, I found myself asking, "Why are these people singing?" Or, more accurately, "Why are these people screaming?" For some reason, the authors thought the story was best served by having some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th Century wail in the style of arena-rock hair bands of the 1980s.
The lyrics here range from laughably general (as with the repeated refrain, "We gotta hit the bottom 'fore we reach the top") to the ridiculously specific ("Let them have my patents..."). The ballads are of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" variety, including such blather-filled references as to "the blinding brilliant headlights of this love."
Atomic does have some effective moments, particularly in a sober epilogue in which all the major players who built the A-bomb meet up years later and talk about answering the "Why Did You Do It?" query they repeatedly find themselves receiving. It's a question the authors of Atomic might well ask themselves. (Hey, open with a cheap shot, close with a cheap shot.)