at the Pico Playhouse
A musical biography of iconic German scientist Albert Einstein (1879–1955) sounds like an intriguing possibility. Unfortunately, this superficial portrait of Einstein's life and career comes across as anything but smart. The choice of the creators (co-librettists Russ Alben and John Sparks, lyricist Alben, and composer Jerry Hart) to focus on the lovable-kook side of Einstein's personality results in a cloying bonbon that all but ignores the darker and more profound elements of the man's life, settling for worn-out conventions of feel-good musicals. What we didn't need was an Einstein tribute in which the titular genius feels like a cross between Groucho Marx and Alfred E. Neuman.
The framing device for this diffuse Reader's Digest recap has an eager reporter for a Jewish newspaper picking the brain of the cantankerous scholar at various points in his life. Following some initial grousing, Einstein (Alan Safier) quickly finds himself bonding with journalist Burke (John Combs) as the men prance through a cheerful soft-shoe ditty about their differing religious philosophies ("You Can't Be a Little Jewish"), featuring Madeleine Dahm's hackneyed choreography. The narrative provides fleeting details of how Einstein mistreated his first wife Mileva (Gail Bianchi) and left her to wed his first cousin Elsa (Terri Homberg-Olsen). Beyond Einstein's love life, there are gags about his eccentricities—not wearing socks, getting lost walking home—but not much about his groundbreaking scientific discoveries. There are occasional moments of personal crises, depicting Einstein's guilt over his role in atomic research, which led to the United States' bomb attacks on Japan in World War II.
A few songs ("After All of These Years," "Love Songs") are tuneful and disarming, and the cast exhibits polish and enthusiasm. Safier is an engaging actor-singer straddled with an insipidly written role. Homberg-Olsen boasts a beautiful soprano voice. Bianchi evokes moments of empathy. Director Herb Isaacs' staging is crisply efficient. Gerald Sternbach's music direction and arrangements are impeccable, and Jon Dinerstein provides solid piano accompaniment. It's too bad these strong efforts weren't expended on worthier material. By the time the inane number "It Isn't Always Easy Being Einstein" has its third refrain, it's even less easy to sit through.
Presented by West Coast Jewish Theatre at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Mar. 27-May 11. (323) 860-6620. www.westcoastjewishtheatre.org.
Reviewed by Les Spindle