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First Nighter: Musicals "Atomic," "The Mapmaker's Opera," "ValueVille"

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Atomic, at the Acorn, is the show that asks the musical question: Once the A-bomb was realized, was it wise to use it? Coming up with an answer requires a great deal of serious thought, which is what librettist-lyricists Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore and composer-lyricist Philip Foxman give it. Whether they've given it enough thought--in a tuner that may push the limit on how far musicals dealing with difficult issues can go--remains in question.

Ginges, Bonsignore and Foxman tell their story within an intriguing framework. Appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the brilliant though arrogant J. Robert Oppenheimer (Euan Morton) decides to defend his loyalty to the country by telling the history of the development of the devastating weapon that irrevocably changed mankind's history.

Oppenheimer introduces the tale of Leo Szilard (Jeremy Kushnier), then and now an almost forgotten figure in the building of the atomic bomb. It was Szilard who got the genius notion about a chain reaction leading to splitting the atom, a possibility discounted prior to the mid-1930s.

Fearful, particularly when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, that German scientists would build a bomb before anyone else, Szilard devoted his life to the project (eventually the Manhattan Project), at times jeopardizing his marriage to pediatrician Trude Weiss Szilard (Sara Gettelfinger).

When the war with Germany ends, Szilard considers the long-term implications of the bomb and concludes that using it against Japan is too much for his conscience to bear. He tries to stop it but is foiled in an attempt to reach Harry Truman--partly because Oppenheimer argued successfully that deploying the bomb would result in the occasion's being an effective future deterrent, which, of course, it has been. So far.

It's a meaty subject, all right, with Ginges, Bonsignore and Foxman bringing in supporting players like Enrico Fermi (Jonathan Hammond), Edward Teller (Randy Harrison) and project liaison Arthur Compton (David Abeles), who objected to Szilard's resistant attitude towards the kind of secrecy under which he was expected to operate.

In a production where Neil Patel's sleek grid-like set (that annoyingly obscures lights behind it specifying locales) and David Finn's lighting are crucially effective, the human and humane nature of those associated with the super-human efforts--the amount of drinking the participants did, for instance, and then their abiding post-bombing guilt--is both surveyed and stinted.

Szilard's details are unfolded in great detail, but Oppenheimer's, on the other hand, aren't. (Fermi is presented almost strictly as a caricature Italian.) It's not unusual for musicals to jump over biographical segments, and that occurs in excess with Oppenheimer. How he became Manhattan Project head is completely ignored, practically reducing him to the heavy in the piece, a bombastic bombing advocate with his signature cigarette in hand.

And since this is a musical, there's the music. It's something of a rock score during which every once in a while Kushnier, who has a solid belt, steps center stage--sometimes on a table--and, not unlike Idina Menzel in If/Then, delivers a power ballad with all his might. That just about every song he's given sounds like the one that preceded it isn't helpful, nor are the lyrics, which are rife with clumsy off rhymes. Neither Oscar Hammerstein nor Stephen Sondheim nor any other Golden Age lyricist you might mention would ever rhyme "office" with "nauseous"--especially since the correct adjective is 'nauseated."

Kushnier isn't the only forceful singer in the group, directed with cogency by Damien Grey and choreographed when it's called for by Greg Graham. The other eight ensemble members match him when their turns come. Is it going too far to say they're all a blast?

***

Most people know about Swan Lake, but perhaps only those who see The Mapmaker's Opera at PTC Performance Place as part of the New York Music Festival, will know about Paloma Lake. That could be the English title of "Leyenda de la Paloma," the dance that begins the musical's second act and, as choreographed by Stas Kmiec and danced by Natalia Lepore Hagan and Andrés Acosta, is the most interesting part of an otherwise uninvolving work.

Adapting Béa Gonzalez's novel of the same name set on the eve of the Mexican Revolution, librettist-lyricist Victor Kazan and composer Kevin Purcell unfold the story of naturalist's assistant Diego Clemente (Joel Perez), who paints birds, and rich man's daughter Sofia Duarte (Madeleine Featherby), who fall in love across class lines and eventually bear the consequences.

While occasionally throwing in flimsy references to the increasingly inflammatory ruling class/workers condition, the flamenco-influenced musical musters little urgency. While guitarists Nilko Andreas Guarin, Frederick Bryant Hollister, Richard Miller and David Boddington add flavor, the songs eventually give the impression of being a series of rhymed clichés.

The cast, directed half-heartedly by Donald Brenner, is divided into two halves, the half that does its best with the material (Alma Cuervo, Lorraine Serabian, Tony Chiroldes) and the half that doesn't. But there is money on the stage in a series of animated drawings that indicate various Yucatån locales. Since there's no credit for a projections designer, set designer Andrew Lu must deserve the credit.

***

Pretentious and muddled aren't the most encouraging words to describe a production of any kind, but they unfortunately apply to ValueVille, also at the PCT Performance Space and part of this year's NYMF.

It's a spin on Jean-:Paul Sartre's No Exit, and in it a handful of people are trapped with each other in an Ikea-like Purgatory akin to a roach hotel where you can check-in but you can't check out.

Eddie (David Spadora), a recent college grad, arrives and immediately encounters nervous ex-girlfriend Meg (Emily Koch), a tyrannical boss Don (Christopher Sutton) and a few others, including a forever-pregnant shopper (Stephanie Fittro).

The idea seems to be that once any of them realizes what landed them in this pre-Hell and right the personality flaw, he or she is free to go. Yet, several of them do make the connection but still remain condemned to their dire spot. So what does librettist-lyricist-composer Rowan Casey think he's doing?

Not crafting memorable songs, that's for sure. At one point there's a "cheesy feel-good ballad," which isn't my assessment but that of naysayer Don. Towards the end, Sharonda (NaTasha Yvette Williams) blares an 11 o'clock gospel song that lands in the time-honored way of 11 o'clock gospel rants. It's followed by Eddie, Meg and company singing a rather sweet song called "Heart & Soul." It's not the Frank Loesser-Hoagy Carmichael "Heart and Soul," but arranger Ryan Cartwell has the wit to end the ditty with a piano reference to the golden oldie.

ValueVille is directed by the terrific performer Donna Lynne Champlin making her debut in this capacity, and choreographed by the terrific performer Jeffry Denman. They both can be forgiven the lapse.