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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Smartest Man In The World!

It isnít always easy being me. — Albert Einstein
So what can you sing about Albert Einstein? M C squared rhymes with bushy-haired? Advances in the sciences lead to nuclear appliances?

Fortunately, Iím not the one who wrote the songs for The Smartest Man In The World!Ē, the new musical now having its world premiere at the Pico Playhouse in Los Angeles. Russ Alben wrote them and his lyrics are Gilbert and Sullivan clever and as brightly surprising and convoluted as the best of Sondheim or Cole Porter. And certainly better than Cats! Whatís more, Jerry Hart has written some beautiful music: old-fashioned, melodic, and passionate. Songs that would make the Hit Parade, if we still had one.

The story itself, told from the perspective of an elderly man looking back on his life, is a bit saccharine-. The warts it reveals are discharged as the unintended repercussions of the actions of an absent-minded genius, rather than those of a wilful, self-indulgent and very human individual. "He knows everything there is to know about quantum mechanics, but he canít read a street map!" his wife laments. Yet he is fully cognizant of his extraordinary impact as he sings "It Isnít Always Easy Being Einstein," a sentiment reprised by the significant women in his life, who sing "It Isnít Always Easy Loving Einstein."

Among other things, Einstein (played impishly by Alan Safier) was a womanizer. His first wife Mileva (Gail Bianchi) was a mathematician who is often credited with (and as often denied) having played a significant role in the development of his earliest theories. She bore him three children: a daughter who subsequently disappeared into history, and two sons. (The daughter is cryptically referred to in the play as "the other one,"Ē leaving the implication that she was conceived and born before they were married). Einstein divorced Mileva after 16 years to marry his first cousin, Elsa (played by Terri Homberg-Olsen, an elegant blonde with a staggeringly beautiful voice), but not before Mileva had extracted his promise that "when you win the Nobel Prize, the money will come to me." It was a gamble on his future, but it paid off two years later, in 1921, when he won the Prize and honored his promise.

In 1933 Albert and Elsa and her two daughters, whom he had adopted, moved to Princeton where he became a U.S. citizen. After Elsaís death in 1936, he took on as a companion a Czech woman whom he had known in Europe, Johanna Fantova (a buxom Susan Brindley). Known as "Einsteinís last girlfriend," she was nearly always in his company, from the advent of World War II until his death in 1955. It was she who kept a daily journal chronicling the last year and a half of his life which remained undiscovered until 2004.

Finally, there was Helen Dukas (played by Dani Shear) who came with Albert and Mileva from Europe and remained his faithful and adoring secretary and caretaker for 27 years. To these four women Einstein sings "Women Were Made For Love" while Helen ruefully sings "It Isnít Always Easy Being Helen."

The major milestones of Einsteinís life are all there: his horror at having his theories exploited in the making of the atomic bomb, his philosophical ruminations about God and religion and being Jewish, his ardent Zionism and support for the state of Israel, and the FBIís distrust of him during the dreadful McCarthy era. "Investigate," a marvelous song and dance number involving the entire ensemble parodies this period. And the number he sings with John Combs, who plays a reporter from The Jewish Daily Forward, titled ď"You Canít Be a Little Jewish" is a delightful take on the dilemma of the secular Jew.

All the music in this lively musical is marvelously rendered. The 10-member cast is uniformly excellent, well-served by Herb Isaacsí warm direction and music director and arranger Gerald Sterbachís use of their strong and well-trained voices. The one slightly weak link is Safier, who plays Einstein with an uncertain and wobbly voice, a peculiarly inappropriate accent that he adopts in the middle of the first act (switching over from German-Jewish to faux British), and a ludicrous fright wig that wig designer Judi Lewin should be thoroughly ashamed of. Safier manages to overcome these handicaps, however, by emanating charm, limitless energy, and a lovable mischievousness that demonstrates, as book-writers Russ Alben and John Sparks intended, that Einstein was not only the smartest man in the world, but a man who, inherently was "just like us."

In the end, Einsteinís theories of time and relativity become the crux of this musical drama as he ruminates about what it would be like "If I Had My Life to Live Over Again." Makes you think that maybe, 40,000 light years from here, he might be doing just that.
The Smartest Man In The World!
Lyrics by Russ Alben, Book by John Sparks and Russ Alben, Music by Jerry Hart
Directed by Herb Isaacs
Cast: Alan Safier (Albert Einstein), Dani Shear (Helen), Gail Bianchi (Mileva), Terri Homberg-Olsen (Elsa), John Combs (Burke), Aaron Jacobs (Hermann, Conrad), Amy Reiss ( Pauline, Waitress), Albert Owens (Maurice, FBI Man) Susan Brindley (Johanna Fantova) Steve Keyes (Nobel Speaker, Headmaster)
Set Design: Sheldon Metz
Costume Design: Cynthia Herteg
Lighting Design: J. Kent Inasy
Sound Design: Stafford Floyd

Running Time: 2 hours with 10-minute intermission
West Coast Jewish Theatre, Pico Playhouse, 10508 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 860-6620,
From 3/22/08 to 5/11/08; opening 3/27/08
Tickets: $35 (Seniors $32, Students $25, with special prices for groups of 25 or more)
Reviewed by Cynthia Citron based on 3/27/08 performance

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