(l to r) Zal Owen and Alexandra Silbe in ‘Einstein’s Dreams.’ (Photo: Richard Termine)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Albert Einstein as the romantic hero of a musical? He may be an unconventional one, but lover he is in Einstein’s Dreams, a unique combination of the challengingly cerebral and the touchingly sentimental by married couple Joanne Sydney Lessner (book and lyrics) and Joshua Rosenblum (music and lyrics). The show, which premiered in Lisbon in 2005, is at 59E59 Theaters in a highly imaginative Prospect Theatre Company staging by its gifted artistic director, Cara Reichel (The Hello Girls).
Einstein’s Dreams, based on Alan Lightman’s bestselling 1993 short novel, is no ordinary musical. That’s only to be expected of a show about the German-born physicist whose name became synonymous with the word “genius” and whose E=mc2 formula for his Theory of Relativity most people have heard of even if they don’t know what it means.
Lightman’s novel is divided into 35 chapters, most of them reflecting Einstein’s (Zal Owen) dreams on different dates spanning from April through June 1905, when the then 26-year-old scientist-philosopher-amateur musician worked in a patent office in Berne, Switzerland. With that office as its central locale, the show, like its source, focuses on Einstein’s preoccupation with time, which he contemplates while working out his world-altering ideas.
A hugely talented ensemble of eight, most of whom play a named role and various minor ones, bring to life Einstein’s dreams, which he experiences while sleeping on the job. His waking life is populated by his stern boss, Peter Klausen (Michael McCoy); his good friend, Michele Besso (Brennan Caldwell), also a physicist; Besso’s bright wife, Anna (Lisa Helmi Johanson); Klausen’s middle-aged secretary, Hilda (Stacia Fernandez); the pregnant, office typist, Marta (Tess Primack); the Jewish Einstein’s Catholic wife, Mileva (also Primack), whom he admits to no longer loving; a new employee, Schmetterling (Vishal Vaidya); and a precociously smart girl, Josie (Talia Cosentino).
But most significant is the mysterious, wise, and captivating woman in Einstein’s dreams, Josette (the exquisite Alexandra Silber, reason enough to see the show). Dressed in a striking red gown, she leads Einstein, in dream after dream, deeper into his cogitations about time. Under her influence, he and the ensemble express various conceptions including times’ end (in “The End of Time”); the potential of multiple futures, enacted in three different possibilities (in “The Red Hat”); and eternal life (in “The Great-Greats”).
Eventually, Einstein resolves his obsession with Josette, the embodiment of Time, in “Einstein’s Dreams,” and we move forward (or backward, according to where you are on the continuum) toward the curtain.
The dream concept allows the narrative to leap into the future. In one scene, set in the 1920s, the company performs “The Relativity Rag” to a jazzy accompaniment using Charleston-like moves. In another, “Never Let You Go,” a mother (Primack) refuses to let her young daughter (Cosentino) leave her embrace, hoping to prevent her from growing old. “Signposts of Time” allows for the introduction of Einstein’s 1921 Nobel Prize, while “Letter to Roosevelt” presents the atom bomb.
Scenes set in 1905 intermingle with the dreams, with songs that explore time’s slowing down the faster we move, the persistence of the past in our memories, the absence of memory, and so on. While some lyrics are clunky (“He showed why we wanta / Define light as quanta”), others are apropos of what’s being related, one particularly clever one setting the words in reverse order (“Now Backwards Moving Is Time”). With its notably original tunefulness, Rosenblum’s music goes a long way toward covering the occasional heavy-handedness of Lessner’s lyrics.
Einstein’s Dreams, as per its unusual subject matter, is essentially nonlinear, its smooth path through time and space in perfect coordination with a stunningly attractive visual scheme. This begins with Isabel Mengyuan Le’s theatricalist set showing a swirl-patterned, blue and white floor, using minimal furnishings, and backed by a huge clock, under which sits the seven-piece band, led by Milton Granger.
The clock’s face serves as the screen for David Bengali’s mesmerizing projections, within which, on several occasions, appears and disappears the timeless Josette. Herrick Goldman’s magical lighting adds enormously to the experience, as do Sidney Shannon’s picture-perfect costumes.
Zal Owen, wearing a thick mustache, does very well as the intense young Einstein, but the real standout is Silber (Fiddler on the Roof). Her blend of insight, charisma and singing talent is such that you needn’t be an Einstein for her to appear in your dreams.
59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through December 14
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited nearly 30 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. His reviews for 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 are available in the Theatre’s Leiter Side series on Amazon.com. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.