Miss Atomic Bomb is an ambitious new musical that promises much, but sadly fails to deliver: it feels surprisingly embryonic considering that it has spent five years in production and development.
Set in 1952 Las Vegas, a.k.a. “Atomic City, U.S.A.”, it explores the new tourism generated by America’s bizarre cultish obsession with everything atomic: people flocking into Las Vegas to witness the desert nuclear tests.
The opening number is a visual feast, full of razzmatazz and Southern American gusto. It is a vibrant immersion in the throbbing world of casinos, mobsters and glamour. However, the opening’s breakneck pace soon becomes dizzying, giving the sense that Miss Atomic Bomb has bitten off more than it can chew.
Candy Johnson (Florence Andrews) is a big-dreaming shepherdess who meets the songbird soldier Joey Lubowitz (Dean John-Wilson) one starry Nevadan night. Meanwhile Joey’s nervous wreck of an older brother Lou (Simon Lipkin) needs to come up with an atomic gimmick to attract tourists to stay in his hotel. Lou is in serious danger of being shot by his short-tempered mobster boss if he doesn’t come up with something fast, fortunately he has a lucky eureka moment: the genius idea of the ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ beauty pageant. At this point in time the real dangers of radiation were unknown, and this absurd naivety is an often tapped source of comedy: there are jokes about dead sheep, a multitude of puns on radiance and glow, and a song (“Radioactive Love”) about radiation poisoning.
Credit where credit is due: it has an original plot and an original score, the choreography is slick, the costumes are good and Catherine Tate’s performance as the ballsy fashionista Myrna Ranapapadophilou brings some comic charm to the table; but these achievements do not redeem the failings. The comedy is sporadic and wooden, garish display often dwarfs the narrative, characterisation suffers for the sake of advancing the plot and the indulgence in ‘50s kitsch and culture, while nostalgically fun, is heavily relied upon as a contrivance. Miss Atomic Bomb has many good independent elements, but the way in which they are thrown together makes the overall ensemble distinctly lacklustre. The closing number is perhaps the most disappointing part: an unconvincing wave of schmaltz that betrays the narrative’s desperate reach for a conclusion.