“In his scheme, the only happy people are those who have surrendered to the moment.” Dennis Overbye from his 1993 review of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams.
“Are you there? Do you hear me?” sings Josette (Alexandra Silber), the Circe- like beauty in red haunting Albert Einstein’s dreams. A 26 year-old patent clerk in Berne, Switzerland, Einstein (Zal Owen) has a tendency to fall asleep at his desk after hours. With a screaming baby at home, his office is the only place the young physicist can concentrate on a theory in which he’s engrossed. “Free will is now a drill/until the end of time,” the company sings in a carpe diem number.
Awake, Einstein secretly rewrites submitted patents to make them viable, despite objection by his grounded friend Besso (Brennan Caldwell). Asleep, he’s in love with the enchantress who illuminates fluctuation of time and its consequences. “If I understood time and space better, I could be with her…what if time itself is finite?” (Seduction by thesis.)
The scientist is far more secure with equations than human emotion. “Regrettably love is not a science./It practically bursts with real defiance./The head and heart are a misalliance./You really should sue for non-compliance.” A duet with Besso arrives part Ogden Nash, part Cole Porter.
Though the concept Einstein is struggling to comprehend may be beyond grasp, each of his musical dreams is couched in relatable experience. Who doesn’t understand being burdened by past or afraid of the future, the illusion of time speeding up as we get older, longing for the opportunity for a “re-do?” Besso and patent office boss, Klausen (Michael McCoy), sing regretfully about their fathers.
What about wanting to stop time, to keep something as it is? “If I don’t let you go, you’ll never know how much I love you,” a mother sings to her child. Who hasn’t read a book or seen a film that fantasizes living forever? “The Great-Greats,” an eternal hierarchy of living grandparents, drolly addresses this one. Einstein puts his hypothesis together piece by piece.
The physicist finally contrives e = mc2* celebrating with a buoyant “Things go through phases/ My stock may sag/But I’ll keep singing,/swaying and swinging/I’ll just keep singing/The Relativity Rag…” Cue 1920s dance. Most of Dax Valdes’ appealing movement is synchronized, gestural choreography. Literally kicking up heels lightens this moment.
Though he hasn’t changed, Einstein’s perspective has. He learns to live in the moment, or at least make the attempt. A duet with Josette in which every thought and feeling happens for the first time cleverly requires checking life stories in notebooks hanging from their belts. “If You Wait One Moment, I’ll Check.” Having solved the problem, he recovers equilibrium and looks around…outside his mind.
Caveat: A brief foray into the scientist’s future feels stuck in, unnecessary. There’s plenty here to engage and intrigue.
Except when noting equations (infrequent), the book is comprehensible due to its human arc. Lyrics are sometimes very clever and always communicate. Music, though not memorable, works prettily and well at the time, evoking both period and mood. The brave, original piece borders on light opera.
A predominantly solid cast is lead by Zal Owen (Einstein) and Alexandra Silber (Josette). Both actors have fine voices. Chemistry is terrific. Owen credibly presents youth, preoccupation and focus. Silber’s palette includes mythic attributes of a siren and maternal feelings about her “charge.”
Also featuring: Stacia Fernandez, Lisa Helmi Johanson, Vishal Vaidya.
Director Cara Reichel imaginatively manifests each postulation, slipsliding between reverie and reality. Staging is fun. Deadpan humor, longing and lust are particularly well depicted. At one point, with his back to us, Einstein ages before he turns; at another, that age is withdrawn. Well executed.
Orchestrations by Joshua Rosenblum and Tim Peierls make the six musicians sound full and rich. Kevin Heard’s sound design includes creative, atmospheric effects.
*“E is energy and M is mass, and they are equivalent! They’re the same stuff! Or, at least, one can be converted into the other… C is the speed of light, of course—it’s such a huge number. Which means that it only takes a tiny amount of matter to produce an enormous amount of energy!”
The blue-gridded two level set by Isabel Mengyan Le offers a multitude of pleasing visuals. Lighting design by Herrick Goldman and evocative projections by David Bengali join symbiotically to create fluid dream-reality sequences.
Costumes by Sidney Shannon are all attractive and period perfect.
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Zal Owen; L-to-R-Tess Primack, Lisa Helmi Johanson, Vishal Vaidya, Michael McCoy, Talia Cosentino, Stacia Fernandez
Prospect Theater Company presents
Book/Lyrics by Joanne Sydney Lessner
Music/Lyrics – Joshua Rosenblum
Adapted from Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
Music Director – Milton Granger
Directed by Cara Reichel
Through December 14, 2019