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Arts & Culture

Bob Goepfert Reviews "Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat”

GLENS FALLS – Adirondack Theatre Festival is opening its season in Glens Falls with a bold production of a world premiere that is dynamic, exciting.  And, as with any new work, is in need of work.

However if you like high-power theater that takes risks “Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat” will offer you two and half hours of high energy performances and a unique theater experience.

The Nicola Tesla in the title is the man responsible for the development of cheap electricity.   If you don’t recognize his name that is because Thomas Edison acquired his rights to alternating current and claimed the glory and riches for himself.

At the heart of the musical is the conflict between the powerful businessman Edison and the genius dreamer Tesla.  Though Tesla’s ideas won the battle over alternating current against Edison’s choice - direct current, it was Edison who won the war and is remembered today as the pioneer who brought the world electricity. 

The production starts with a dream in which Tesla sees the future and his role in it.    From that moment on he is no longer satisfied with the present and lives a life of dreaming about – not what can be – but what will be.    Like most geniuses and visionaries, Tesla is a mad prophet.

Indeed the story is told almost though Tesla’s hallucinogenic view of life.  The period is ill defined, genders are mixed, and smoke, strobe lighting and moods that range from darkness to intensely bright jar the senses. The music pulsates and slips between electronic dance and spoken-word rap.  The dance moves are sharp and edgy.  

Clearly, the creators Nikko Benson and Ben Halstead are not afraid of risk by taking the audience down a rabbit hole or two –which can initially be disorienting. Edison is an African-American hipster, J.P. Morgan is a female, Marconi is a loud angry braggart who steals his concept for wireless communication from Tesla, a black Mark Twain wanders through scenes for no apparent reason and the financier George Westinghouse holds Shark Tank-like auditions from those seeking his backing.

However, once the concept takes over and stops being a distraction there are rewards.   The story is told clearly and with energy and compassion for Tesla.  The musical thrives on his competition with Edison but with the end of act one, that battle is over and the show loses its conflict. 

The musical futher loses its way in the second act as it covers a lot of ground – mostly about Tesla’s inability to turn great ideas into great inventions.  It suggests he was the first to conceive of radio, television, computers and ecology, but he failed to gain support for his ideas.   

Even when the work becomes repetitive the free-wheeling performances are compelling and sustain interest.  The young performers are terrific as they play people who often stop short of being being real yet imbue them with sincerity and comedy.

It’s hard to predict the future of the musical, but the future for Isaac Powell, who plays Tesla is unlimited.   A 2017 graduate of North Carolina School for the Arts, this is his first professional job.  It won’t be his last.  Powell has charm, personality and a great singing voice.  He’s an amazing talent who is destined to be a major star. 

Also excellent is Jon-Michael Reese as he creates a super cool street smart and ruthless Edison.  Reese radiates confidence and sleaze simultaneously and is captivating in every scene.  He is sorely missed in the second act.  Kay West is a sexy Kat Johnson who tries to generate some passion in the cold Tesla and Brook Wood belts out some terrific moments as J.P. Morgan.

There are no weak links in this extremely large cast that creates a different take on familiar figures.

“Tesla” is a musical that should confuse some but please others.  It’s a challenging work that offers rewards.

“Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat” at Adirondack Theatre Festival, Glens Falls. Through July 1.  For tickets and schedule call 518-798-Wood.

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