New Line Theatre's ATOMIC Is The Bomb!

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Jeffrey M. Wright and Zachary Allen Farmer in New Line Theatre's ATOMIC. Photo Credit Jill Ritter Lindberg

When I saw the lineup for the 25th Anniversary season of New Line Theatre, I immediately noted ATOMIC as the one that interested me the most. Why, you ask? I knew HEATHERS from the 1988 film, I knew AMERICAN IDIOT from Green Day’s music, and I knew TELL ME ON A SUNDAY from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pedigree. ATOMIC I knew nothing about. Heck, this is only the fourth time anyone has ever staged this show, and the first in the Midwest. I assumed it would have something to do with bombs—maybe a rock opera about the Reagan years, or perhaps a declaration against nuclear power in favor of safer, greener, renewable forms of energy? As it turned out, it was a biography of one of the lost names of the Manhattan Project, presented as a moving and tense rock musical from Danny Ginges (book and lyrics), Philip Foxman (music and lyrics) and Andy Peterson (orchestrations). If you think the theatre season in Grand Center is pretty much over when spring rolls around and the Fox Theatre's Broadway Series comes to a close, think again. ATOMIC is “the bomb” and well worth checking out.

New Line Theatre Directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy are known in the region for putting on someJeffrey M. Wright, Sean Michael, Ryan Scott Foizey, Larissa White in New Line Theatre's ATOMIC. Photo Credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg edgy and irreverent shows. ATOMIC is intense, but not wild and crazy. It doesn’t have to be—history took care of that already. The production revolves chiefly around Leo Szilard (Zachary Allen Farmer), a Hungarian physicist who escaped Europe just before the start of World War II. Soon after arriving in America with his girlfriend, Dr. Trude Weiss (Ann Hier), he finds himself deeply enmeshed with Enrico Fermi (Reynaldo Arceno), Arthur Compton (Ryan Scott Foizey), Edward Teller (Sean Michael), J. Robert Oppenheimer (Jeffrey M. Wright) and Leona Woods (Larissa White). These individuals, along with several other physicists, (represented by Victoria Valentine on “Jane-of-All-Trades” duty) were the key players in The Manhattan Project, the secret project to create the atomic bomb before the Germans. Of course, our intelligence on the German bomb effort was not terribly robust, and the Third Reich never actually achieved a useable device. President Harry Truman was advised by project liaison General Leslie Groves (Sean Michael again) that the bomb was ready, and “Little Boy” was loaded onto a B-29 bomber plane named “The Enola Gay,” named after bomber pilot Col. Paul Tibbets’s (Jeffrey M. Wright again) mother. The rest, as they say, is history. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were virtually wiped off the map and Japan surrendered to the Unites States. The atomic bomb brought World War II to a decisive end, but spawned an arms race between the United States and Soviet Union that has spilled over to nearly every industrialized country on the planet at some point since, including aggressive countries like North Korea today.

Reynaldo Arceno in New Line Theatre's ATOMIC. Photo Credit: Jill Ritter LindbergThat is what ATOMIC is ultimately about; it’s not actually about the bomb itself, it’s about the ramifications of Szliard’s and the Manhattan Project’s hubris. Each person involved with the project had to grapple with the problem of intellectualism versus morality—being smart enough to know how to do something dangerous versus being smart enough to know that maybe you shouldn’t do it at all. Szilard struggled early and often with this question, and decided for himself that it was too terrible a thing to be used against cities teaming with innocent non-combatants. Zachary Allen Farmer, one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, dials it down in his role, affecting a soft European accident that gave a bit of credibility to his academic character. He worked well with Ann Hier, a lovely actress whom I’ve wanted to see in a larger role for some time. Ann’s sweet voice countered Zachary’s bombastic tenor sweetly, and the pair makes for a believable couple on stage. Ann’s Trude Weiss is the emotional touchstone of the show, trying hard to maintain some semblance of the couple’s normal life as Szilard becomes increasingly distant during his work on the bomb. I don’t know what the real Szilard and Weiss actually went through during the war years--precious little was found on a quick search online, and they apparently didn't marry until years later--but their relationship works well here to break up the science. The science itself isn’t dense—you won’t feel like you’re auditing a Physics 101 course when you come to the Marcelle Theatre. Reynaldo Arceno’s Enrico Fermi provides mild comedic relief while maintaining a healthy level of scientific curiosity and personal turmoil. Rey’s singing voice is fantastic with a unique quality that’s hard to put my finger on, but that’s all the more reason to come see and hear him yourself. I greatly enjoyed Ryan Scott Foizey as Arthur Compton, the bridge between the project and the military who was also a deeply religious man. Separating God and Country is tough sometimes, and Ryan expertly demonstrates that conflict in Compton. I’ve enjoyed the high tenor of his singing voice since I first heard him in New Line’s production of NEXT TO NORMAL a few years ago, and it pairs wonderfully here with Larissa White in “What I Tell Myself,” an emotionally gripping song of regret shared by most of the participants. Larissa has been a regular on the New Line Stage over the last couple of seasons, starring in BONNIE AND CLYDE, and supporting in a variety of productions including the excellent THE THREEPENNY OPERA and this season’s HEATHERS and AMERICAN IDIOT. She plays Leona Woods with sass as she denies Edward Teller’s romantic advances while demonstrating the necessary intelligence to show that Woods wasn’t just eye candy in this production. Sean Michael, Jeffrey M. Wright and Victoria Valentine all have multiple roles, and each actor pulls them off with aplomb. The speed in which they changed costumes from scene to scene was astounding, and kudos to Sarah Porter for her expert costume design choices. Sean possesses a very strong voice—when he was facing my side of the house I could pick his voice out from the rest of the ensemble. Victoria is a relative newcomer to New Line, having appeared in HEATHERS. I look forward to seeing more of her in future productions, and really enjoyed her on “Holes in the Doughnuts” with Ann and Larissa, a number that was a bit reminiscent of Christina Aguilera’s “Candyman” video. Jeffrey M. Wright, a veteran presence on a variety of St. Louis stages, plays Oppenheimer as a pompous ass before he begins to realize just what their weapon could eventually do to the entire world. As Tibbets, he exudes machismo, while as a singer he plays it smoothly subdued. This cast is, quite frankly, ridiculously talented. I’d be happy to watch a production with any one of these fine actors, but all eight at once is a must-see event.

Larissa White, Victoria Valentine and Ann Heir in New Line Theatre's ATOMIC. Photo Credit: Jill Ritter LindbergAs always, the Rob Lippert-designed set doesn’t disappoint, functioning as a screen to hide the ever excellent New Line Band, led by pianist Jeffrey Richard Carter, guitarist D. Mike Bauer and guitarist/keyboardist Adam Rugo, cellist Eric Bateman, bassist Jake Stergos, violinist Twinda Murry and percussionist Clancy Newell. The score for Atomic is terrific; D. Mike’s power chords counterpointing the string section’s smooth melancholy, balanced by the steady rhythms of Clancy’s drums and Jeffrey’s and Adam’s keyboards. The centerpiece of the set is a simple but heavy wooden table that functions as the Manhattan Project’s workspace, the Szilard/Weiss kitchen, and the Enola Gay in a bit of Jeffrey M. Wright pantomime. The far end of the set opposite the band was set up like one of those old neighborhood watering holes, where Szilard and Tibbets meet a couple of times and the whole project goes to refill their liquid courage reservoirs. The set bisects the Marcelle Theatre’s seats, so half of the audience is on either side of the set. The result is that nobody in the audience is more than perhaps six rows away from being on stage, making you feel like you’re not just observing a performance but are mere feet from history. Rob and Lighting Technician Michael Juncal did a tremendous job lighting the stage. That may seem like a “Well duh!” statement, but you shouldn’t overlook the nuances of light and its impact on a given production. The light hues for the majority of the play seemed to veer towards yellow, which along with the heavy use of brown shades in Sarah Porter’s costumes gives the show a warm sepia tone appearance. In other words, it helps it feel dated, and not brilliantly awash in modern incandescence. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but the first act ends with the successful test of the atomic bomb at Alamogordo and Rob’s lighting choices brings that experience to the audience in a wonderfully unexpected way.

The audience for opening night was a little light, and while there were a number of choices around town for entertainment—the Cardinals were home against the San Francisco Giants, Circus Flora was open just a block away from the theatre and Shakespeare Festival St. Louis underway just a few miles further uptown—the theatre patrons who did attend were very energetic. The production took on a vibe usually seen at sporting events. Towards the end of the first act, the crowd started cheering and whistling after each song. The finale of Act One with Mr. Lippert’s neat lighting effect got a big ovation. Act Two seemed like it might feature some chants of “Let’s Go Szilard!” as the audience never backed down. When the actors came out to take their bows they got a blistering standing ovation that belied their numbers. I overheard a number of folks at intermission telling each other how good this production was, and that it wasn’t at all what they expected. I didn’t ask what they were expecting, but New Line has a bit of a reputation for pushing people out of their comfort zones. ATOMIC includes the occasional curse word but is suitable for everyone. I don’t think Scott Miller picks shows simply for shock value.  He picks shows that are interesting to him in some way. I’ve read about the Manhattan Project over the years myself, but Leo Szilard wasn’t a name I remembered, unlike Oppenheimer and Fermi. Szilard, as it turns out, was more famous for pioneering atomic medicine than the atomic bomb. I applaud Scott Miller for bringing ATOMIC to his stage and masterfully blending education with entertainment.  

ATOMIC plays the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive (three blocks east, more or less behind Powell Hall) June 2 – 25, 2016.Come down early for the circus, but get your tickets in advance for ATOMIC. Once word gets around about how tremendous this show is, it’s going to be a hot ticket, no pun intended. For more information, visit or purchase your tickets via MetroTix, 314-534-1111.

5.0 / 5.0