If Nazism can be drafted into a musical, why not the making of the atomic bomb? Don’t tell mama, but the team behind Atomic has done just that. They don’t shirk their mission, either. The show examines life pre-bomb, post-bomb, during the bomb’s making, and, most bravely, at the moment of detonation.
The results, like those of the bomb itself, are mixed. Among the most forceful is the evocation of the innocent victims. Atomic opens with a young couple seated across from each other, conversing in Japanese. Nothing is illuminated but the screen behind them, so they appear as silhouettes, foreshadowing their obliteration. We can barely see them and may not understand them, but we remember them. Their image haunts the scenes to come, set far away in Europe and the United States.
The rest of the musical has its moments, as when three factory workers making bomb parts go all Andrews Sisters. But no moment approaches the power of the first until, well, guess. The show is loaded with flashing lights, and the bomb’s explosion is their dazzling climax. Their integration with a wordless slow-motion sequence in which the Japanese couple from the beginning are laid low generates such emotional and physical intensity that audience members may have to look away from the stage.
Despite its occasional spectacularity, Atomic lacks the flair of Cabaret. The sentiments of its love songs are numbingly conventional. The moral agony of its lead, physicist Leo Szilard, is expounded at such length and volume that it becomes a different kind of agony for the audience. The musical is most gripping when it holds tight to history, as with the interrogation of J. Robert Oppenheimer by the House of Un-American Activities Committee, or when it is subtle, as in the opening tableau.
Both Atomic and Cabaret are ambitious yet honorable in their efforts to dramatize historical horror. But only Cabaret warrants its own place in history.