GRACIE AND THE ATOM, the brand-new musical written by McKinley (of Dirty Martini fame) that's currently in its world-premiere run at Artists Repertory Theatre, does one thing very well: It keeps it light. Maybe a little too light. The play deals with some pretty heavy subject matter: death, loss, abandonment, faith vs. rationality. The production doesn't exactly tackle these themes head on, but instead skirts around them, using humor and pop-song sensibilities as means to a somewhat vacant end.
The story begins with Gracie (Beth Sobo), who, after her father's death, is shipped off to Our Lady of Rose, an all-girls Catholic boarding school. Gracie is decidedly not Catholic, her father having been a staunchly scientific thinker, and she quickly finds herself an outsider among the faithful. Here we are introduced to the overarching conflict of the play: science vs. religion, and how it is seen through the eyes of Gracie and the group of teenage students she befriends (most of whom are unfortunately written in a notably one-dimensional way). The church here is represented by Sister Francis (Mary Baird), an overdone stereotype of the stiff nun, who just happens to know why Gracie has been sent to boarding school and who Gracie's long-lost mother is. The scientific realm of the play is embodied by the school's quirky physics teacher, Sister Lidwina (aptly played by Emily Beleele), who wants to show that science can be magical and not mutually exclusive to faith.
Gracie and her girls eventually comprehend that lesson, but why or how is anyone's guess. Their reasons may have been spelled out in one of the many power-chord saturated musical numbers, but the production's songs are more often than not comments on the play's action rather than devices to move the story forward. What remains feels watered down, and character transformations are left somewhat ambiguous and underdeveloped.
Gracie and the Atom isn't, however, without merit. There are passionate performances, the production design is bright and engaging, and Allen Nause's direction seems inspired. If you're a fan of McKinley's music you'll more than likely love this show and its lighter take on some serious subjects.