Photo by Richard Termine
Book and lyrics by Joanne Sydney Lessner
Music and lyrics by Joshua Rosenblum
Based on the novel Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. All Rights Reserved.
Directed by Cara Reichel
Composed of lyrical meditations on the nature of time and the universe, Alan Lightman’s fictional account of the young Albert Einstein’s early theoretical explorations is hardly the type of book that cries out to be made into a musical. Then again, Joanne Sydney Lessner and Joshua Rosenblum aren’t your typical musical theater writing team. Best known for FERMAT’S LAST TANGO, (the very title of which is an inside joke requiring knowledge of both mathematical history and 1970’s art house cinema), this risk-taking duo has a history tackling political and esoteric subject matter. Here, their task is to explore the life of the mind (one of the most notoriously complex and extraordinary minds in human history at that) through song and spectacle, and to make the whole thing as entertaining as it thought-provoking. This is no easy task: To dumb the story down would be a disservice to Lightman’s novel and to its subject, but to craft an inscrutable or self-consciously erudite piece of “theater art” would serve only to alienate the audience and obscure the truth of the text. Remarkably, Lessner and Rosenblum navigate this Scylla and Charybdis with admirable skill and brio, aided in their efforts by a likable and gifted cast, a rich musical palette, and a dazzlingly inventive design team.
The story begins in in Berne, Switzerland , where a discontented Einstein (Zal Owen) whiles his days away working as a clerk in a patent office. The job enables Albert to support his young family, but the work clearly doesn’t hold his interest. Quite literally a clock watcher, Albert only feels alive when attempting to codify the true nature of time, a process that requires him to subdue his conscious mind and let his dreams be his guide. As he meanders through a colorful fantasy world, he falls in love with the elegant, mysterious Josette, (Alexandra Silber), yet there always seems to be something in the way of their romance. They apparently live in different time frames, and Albert’s questions receive only cryptic replies from his new paramour. Soon it becomes apparent that Einstein’s dreams aren’t mere flights of fancy. They contain clues as to the nature of the universe. One dream examines how society would behave if time itself were about to end. In another, people watch their futures play out in several different potential scenarios, each of which seem equally plausible (physicist Hugh Everett and others would later develop this concept into the Many Worlds Theory). Other reveries show time flowing backwards, explore a world in which no one ever dies (it gets a bit crowded), or focus on the mixed emotions felt by parents who, try as they might, can’t stop time from catapulting their children into adulthood. Glimpses of Einstein’s future life appear, as he leaves the Old World charm of Switzerland for drably efficient wartime America and helps usher in the Atomic Age. While Einstein vanishes into his nightly wonderland, his situation back on Earth grows increasingly dire. Hours spent napping at the office mean less time at home, and his long absences take their toll on his marriage to Mileva (Tess Primack). His superiors at the patent office aren’t too thrilled with young Einstein either. His habit of falling asleep at his desk and his lack of attention to his work put him at odds with Mr. Klausen, (Michael McCoy) his punctilious boss. Fellow patent clerk Michele Besso (Brennan Caldwell) wonders if his friend is going crazy. But Besso’s astute wife Anna (Lisa Helmi Johanson) finds Al’s theories charming (it’s all relative). Einstein persists in his belief that the world will one day embrace his theories, but time, as it’s measured in Berne, is running out. Theories notwithstanding, Einstein’s real world problems will have to be sorted out.
The form of the play poses certain challenges, as the stakes are lower in a dream than in real life. We know Albert will wake up in one piece. Smartly, though, the writers don’t overtax the premise. The show is performed without an intermission and clocks in at a trim 95 minutes despite a good sized number of songs. Backed by Rosenblum’s classically-inspired melodies and Tim Peierls’ lush orchestrations, Lessner’s lyrics show remarkable skill and imagination. Her virtuosity is particularly evident in numbers like “Now Backwards Moving Is Time”, in which the characters express their thoughts in reverse, and “Love Is Not a Science”, which abounds with triple and quadruple rhymes as Besso and Albert whimsically bemoan the fact that mathematical postulates are useless in matters of the heart. Throughout the song catalog, Lessner manages to deftly compress complicated concepts into understandable and charming verses.
Director Cara Reichel and associate director Dax Valdes move the actors in and out of the play’s real and imaginary locations with the precision of a Swiss clock, while Herrick Goldman’s lights and David Bengali’s projections nimbly create a series of specific color palettes and symbolic touches for each of Einstein’s miniature odysseys. Sidney Shannon’s costumes reflect the last vestiges of a quaint, early 20th Century Europe that will soon be energized by innovation and consumed by the tides of war and barbarism. Last but far from least, Isabel Mengyuan Le’s set delights the eye and gives a physical form to the circular, linear, multilayered and evanescent nature of time that so fascinated the show’s namesake.
Audiences desiring a more conventional protagonist-vs-obstacle take on the musical form may find the show a bit wanting in meat-and-potatoes storytelling. But for those who crave a nourishing and tasteful mezze plate for the mind, an evening spent attending EINSTEIN’S DREAMS will be time well spent.
EINSTEIN’S DREAMS continues through December 14 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets: https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/einsteins-dreams/#schedule-and-tickets