THE CURRENT WAR
by Quantum Theatre at Westinghouse Park, North Point Breeze
Written by Michael Mitnick
Directed by Tome Cousin
Runs through June 27, 2021
Reviewed By Bob Hoover
Carefully, Quantum Theatre has brought live theater back to town and has done it with a professional flourish under a big tent in Westinghouse Park. It’s the first show I’ve seen with a health and safety supervisor on the crew.
The peripatetic Karla Boos, Quantum’s founder, and Artistic Director found the site naturally. It’s the tree-filled spot where George Westinghouse built his mansion (demolished in 1918) and launched the technology that inspires THE CURRENT WAR by Michael Mitnick.
If Lin-Manuel Miranda could write a hit musical about the life of America’s first secretary of the Treasury, why not one about the war between direct and alternating current?
L-R: Daniel Krell as Thomas Edison and Billy Mason as George Westinghouse by Heather Mull Photography
Pushing direct current with his obsessive stubbornness was the 19th-century’s greatest inventor, Thomas Edison, while Westinghouse, wealthy thanks to his invention of the railroad air brake, used his fortune to prove that the powerful alternating current was the more effective one.
THE CURRENT WAR is not “Hamilton,” but a sort of “Ragtime” without Joplin-inspired music and Doctorow-inspired lyrics. Mitnick wrote the music and lyrics to turn his original script into a musical with uneven results. A few numbers, particularly a Westinghouse-Edison duet, soar while others seem to come from another play.
This Quantum cast can sing, thankfully, and the two-person band of Douglas Levine (piano) and Simon Cummings (cello) performs beautifully.
Stage veteran Daniel Krell as Edison and Pittsburgh native Billy Mason playing Westinghouse bring strong voices to their characters, backed by Melessie Clark (Marguerite Westinghouse), Drew Leigh Williams in a variety of roles, Jerreme Rodriguez as the unfortunate William Kemmler, and Quinn Patrick Shannon as Edison’s assistant, Upton, form a talented team of singers.
As a musical, THE CURRENT WAR confronted the “two roads in a yellow wood” dilemma and chose the one “less traveled by.” Mitnick decided to examine the little-known aspect of the direct vs. alternating battle – the invention of the electric chair. Kemmler was its first official victim, executed for the brutal murder of his wife.
Director Cousins, a choreographer as well, staged the killing like a bloody ballet, followed by several long scenes and musical numbers that pushed “The Current War” off course, losing the thread of the larger theme of capitalist competition in the 19th century.
Edison was not a nice guy. He despised and fought competitors through shrewd marketing and lies, using the public display of killing animals, including an elephant, with alternating current to prove its dangers and defeat Westinghouse. The electric chair was the end result of his failed campaign.
Eliminated in Mitnick’s attack on capital punishment is Nicola Tesla, the brilliant scientist who perfected the machines that made Westinghouse’s electrical system work. He gets a few mentions but is lost in Mitnick’s concentration on Kemmler. (Kemmler who?).
His omission is the play’s weakness. For another version, watch the Mitnick-written film of THE CURRENT WAR, a straightforward story of the battle originally filmed in 2017, now available in a reworked version that gives Tesla his due.
Quantum’s live production of yet another version of THE CURRENT WAR is charged with the creativity that its talented crew brings to the show. The team is one of Quantum’s largest, so I can only single out a few such as Musical Mirector Levine, Michelle Engleman, Director of Production, C. Todd Brown, Lighting Designer, Cubbie McCrory, Technical Director, and Nick Lehane, creator of the wonderful puppets. And of course, Tony Ferrieri, Scenic Designer.
Tickets for the Quantum show are in short supply if not all gone. Attendance is restricted to under 100, Ms. Boos said and coupled with the thirst for live theater, demand is overflowing. Try for tickets at quantumtheatre.com or call 412-362-1713.