At the Aurora Fox, Mark Acito’s play describes an unlikely relationship between Albert Einstein and singer Marian Anderson
Any play that calls itself Secrets of the Universe and Other Songs is setting out some pretty grand expectations for itself. I’m not sure it reveals those secrets exactly, but it is a really fun, high-concept depiction of the friendship between Albert Einstein and classical singer Marian Anderson. Written by Mark Acito and directed by Helen R. Murray, the show is a musical play based on a true story and embellished with fanciful underpinnings. It’s a world premiere at the Aurora Fox, and it explores the heavy concepts of racism, homophobia, and religion.
Listen to the OnStage Colorado podcast interview with playwright Mark Acito and director Helen R. Murray
The play begins in 1937, when Anderson (Mary Louise Lee) first meets Einstein (Jordan Leigh). The famous physicist hosts her because, due to her race, she cannot get a hotel room. She is newly returned from Europe, where she has spent several years in a much more egalitarian society. It depicts two more meetings through the years, ending with one close to Einstein’s death in 1955. Anderson and Einstein spend these meeting discussing the racism, fascism, homophobia (Anderson’s accompanist is gay), and the existence — or lack thereof — of God.
It sounds like heavy stuff, and it is. But there are also appearances of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, and Anderson’s grandfather, who was born a slave. The performance is also infused with pieces of classic spirituals, many of which Anderson was famous for singing. And periodically, the stage is bathed in stars.
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A lot going on
This is just the sort of thing that makes my conceptual brain happy. The stage is a tri-level marvel with a grand piano on top, Einstein’s parlor in the middle, and a street below, which is typically where Roosevelt shows up. He’s not actually there in that moment in a real sense, but because Anderson is thinking about him. If you like your narratives more linear and straightforward, this might not be your thing. But if you happen to like a lot going on all over the place — and I do — this will more than work for you.
And I did I mention that sometimes the whole stage is covered in stars?
I don’t know enough about Einstein to know whether the depiction of his love of silly, somewhat sophomoric jokes is true to form, but what I can say is that Leigh delivers them well and the audience loved them. Uproarious laughter nearly every time. Lee is not actually the only one who sings in this play — at times, everyone does. Music is well-integrated into the plot, and steers both the story and the mood. But as you would hope in a play that is in no small part about a renowned, classically trained singer, Lee has a lovely, crystalline voice that works well for the music. The other players in the cast portray multiple characters, which happens ably and seamlessly.
If I had a criticism, it would be that sometimes the conversation between Anderson and Einstein feels a just a little contrived and, well, staged. But most of the time, I just enjoyed the fact that Marc Acito aimed so high in the first place and had so much going on, visually and thematically. Secrets of the Universe manages to be both challenging – and fun.