When is the last time you saw a real schmaltzy, Broadway-type musical at your local Equity-waiver theatre? And, how in the world could the story revolve around the genius of TIME magazine’s 1999 Man of the Century, inventor of the legendary E=mc2?
Well, you’re in for a treat, as thanks to the book by Russ Alben and John Sparks, lyrics by Russ Alben, music by Jerry Hart and music director and arranger Gerald Sternbach, The Smartest Man in the World, presented by the West Coast Jewish Theatre, is a delightful musical journey through the personal trials and tribulations of Albert Einstein’s rather complicated love life.
With minimal production values, from the sparce set to lighting design, the show succeeds because of an outstanding cast with uniformly excellent legit voices. The songs range from tender love songs to rousing ensemble pieces such as the opening number, “The Smartest Man in the World,” to the amusing “You Can’t Be a Little Jewish.”
We all know about Einstein’s propensity for not wearing socks and absentmindedness, but a very personal side of the man who changed how the world thinks is revealed through the women he loved and who loved him.
Alan Safier (Einstein) manages to keep his character from lapsing into caricature and captures the humanity of this once-in-a-lifetime genius. We see his frustration at his colleague’s lack of understanding of his Unified Field Theory and experience his pain on learning that the atomic bomb was dropped in Japan. (Historic note: Although he had no direct participation in the Manhattan Project, Einstein had sent a letter to President Roosevelt encouraging the harnessing of nuclear fission for military purposes which he came to regret, and later lobbied to stop nuclear testing and the development of future bombs.)
Gail Bianchi plays his first devoted wife, Mileva, who appears to have been his intellectual partner. Still in love with him and unhappy about granting Einstein a divorce, she demands that he give her the Nobel Prize money he was awarded for his paper on Theoretical Physics so that she can provide for their three children. This frees him to marry his first cousin Elsa (Terri Homberg-Olsen). Elsa sings the very touching “Love Songs.” The other primary woman in Einstein’s life is Helen (Dani Shear), his loyal secretary who looks after him until his death. The trio sings “It Isn’t Always Easy Loving Einstein,” each with a crisp, soprano voice. The lyrics help us understand why they are dedicated to him. John Combs does an excellent job playing Burke, a reporter from the Jewish Daily Forward, who forms a close, touching relationship with both Einstein and Helen.
Given the challenges of the small Pico Playhouse stage, director Herb Isaacs did an adequate job in utilizing the space, which certainly imposed challenges and prevented more creativity in the staging. Although it is better for American actors not to do accents unless they are very proficient, there was inconsistency in that regard.
While this aspect of Einstein’s life was not illuminated in the play to any great extent, he was an accomplished violinist, so that it is fitting that a musical be developed around his life. It is refreshing that the expression “you left the theatre humming the set” does not apply to The Smartest Man in the World as the music is memorable.
The Smartest Man in the World plays through May 11 at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Boulevard, LA, 323.860.6620, westcoastjewishtheatre.org.