It is a tale of invention: the battle of the brilliant.
And in a duel for supremacy of the currents, what might seem a tale of the past — of bearded white men whose images hang in framed sepia-toned prints in hallowed scientific halls is transformed into a visceral, modern-day experience, leaving no physical sense untouched.
As the dramatic duels between rivals — Thomas Edison, brilliantly played by Jon-Michael Reese, and Nikola Tesla, intimately played by Isaac Powell — explode in the Adirondack Theatre Festival’s summer season inaugural show, “Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat,” these inventors breathe.
Taking flight barely minutes into this electronic pop musical, Tesla and Edison’s connection seems an unbalanced pairing of a timid innocent against a seasoned charmer.
Written by Nikko Benson and Ben Halstead, directed by Marshall Pallett and choreographed by Maxx Reed, this production has an intensity and finesse generally relegated to New York City stages.
At the Wednesday night preview, a packed house cheered the stellar performances of the actors, reacting with hoots and hollers to the beat-box feel of this heart-pumping combination of music, light and dance.
The show opens in the middle of Tesla’s fevered dream, while a young man still living in Croatia, of a future packed with bright lights. When he wakes back into the reality of a darkened room, the seamless set changes and arctic winds whistling through windows increase the tension of his obsession to discover his dream.
“There’s a spark off in the darkness of a dream ... my feet unfreeze, as darkness dies. As I gravitate towards this flicker ... oh I wish the glow were real tonight.”
But Edison, in a grandiose, flamboyant and naughty style, let’s everyone know, “I run this show.”
Other famous men and women become part of Tesla’s tale — Mark Twain, Marie Curie, J.P. Morgan, George Westinghouse, Guglielmo Marconi, Mihajlo Pupin — but in versions that recast the way they’ve been portrayed in textbooks.
They breathe. They deceive, they corrupt, they love, they reap the consequences of their decisions and the sometimes harsh realities of living.
“The world is wrong. The world is blind. The world is not exactly what I had in mind,” Nikola Tesla sings, as his boy-eyed wonder begins to dissipate.
After finally reaching a measure of fame, and with funding from financier J.P. Morgan (spectacularly played by Brook Wood), Tesla’s tower crashes into shards of a dream that burned, scorched and seared its dreamer and all those around him.
Tesla’s quest to succeed at all costs blinds him to seeing that perhaps he reached too far, asked too much and gave up too much.
“If I can pull this off, then all my mistakes, the people I’ve hurt, it will have been worth it. I can’t let it all amount to nothing.”
What makes this script so brilliant is that by this moment, anyone paying attention has started to think, “No, Tesla, it’s not worth it.”
Tesla’s story becomes a story for today. His story becomes the audience’s story, as it did for playwrights Benson and Halstead when they saw the parallels to their own lives.
It’s hard to put into words, the way the choreography, spectacular lighting and contagious musical score and vocal arrangements blend in near perfection with the script, but one thing is certain, this is show not to be missed.