The Race Is on and 'Double Helix' Is Genetic Winner - 27 East

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The Race Is on and ‘Double Helix’ Is Genetic Winner

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The cast of

The cast of "Double Helix," from left, Anthony Chatmon II as Maurice Wilkins, Tuck Sweeney as William Bates, Samantha Massell as Rosalind Franklin and Anthony Joseph Costello as Raymond Gosling. LENNY STUCKER

Anthony Joseph Costello as Raymond Gosling and Samantha Massell as Rosalind Franklin in

Anthony Joseph Costello as Raymond Gosling and Samantha Massell as Rosalind Franklin in "Double Helix." LENNY STUCKER

The cast of

The cast of "Double Helix," from left, Thom Sesma as John Randall, Tuck Sweeney as William Bates, Samantha Massell as Rosalind Franklin, Anthony Chatmon II as Maurice Wilkins and Anthony Joseph Costello as Raymond Gosling. LENNY STUCKER

From left, Austin Ku as Francis Crick, Anthony Chatmon II as Maurice Wilkins and Max Chlumecky as James Watson in

From left, Austin Ku as Francis Crick, Anthony Chatmon II as Maurice Wilkins and Max Chlumecky as James Watson in "Double Helix." LENNY STUCKER

Matthew Christian as Jacques Mering and Samantha Massell as Rosalind Franklin in

Matthew Christian as Jacques Mering and Samantha Massell as Rosalind Franklin in "Double Helix." LENNY STUCKER

Samantha Massell as Rosalind Franklin in

Samantha Massell as Rosalind Franklin in "Double Helix." LENNY STUCKER

Samantha Massell as Rosalind Franklin and Amy Justman as Adrienne Weill in

Samantha Massell as Rosalind Franklin and Amy Justman as Adrienne Weill in "Double Helix." LENNY STUCKER

Samantha Massell as Rosalind Franklin and Anthony Chatmon II as Maurice Wilkins in

Samantha Massell as Rosalind Franklin and Anthony Chatmon II as Maurice Wilkins in "Double Helix." LENNY STUCKER

The full cast of

The full cast of "Double Helix" at Bay Street Theater. LENNY STUCKER

The cast of

The cast of "Double Helix," from left, Thom Sesma as John Randall, Anthony Joseph Costello as Raymond Gosling, Samantha Massell as Rosalind Franklin, Tuck Sweeney as William Bates and Anthony Chatmon II as Maurice Wilkins. LENNY STUCKER

authorAnnette Hinkle on Jun 6, 2023

As the lights come up on Madeline Myers’s world premiere musical, “Double Helix,” Bay Street Theater’s first production of its summer mainstage season, we find ourselves at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden.

It’s December 1962, and accepting the award for their discovery of the structure of DNA are Cambridge researchers James Watson (Max Chlumecky) and Francis Crick (Austin Ku), who acknowledge other researchers whose work provided scientific breakthroughs along the way. Standing alongside Watson and Crick at the podium is a third man — scientist Maurice Wilkins (Anthony Chatman II) of King’s College, who shares the honor. But he’s uneasy with the scene and once the flashbulbs subside and the men begin to exit the stage, Wilkins admonishes Watson and Crick, asking if there isn’t perhaps someone specific they have forgotten to acknowledge in their remarks.

They have indeed. And her name is Rosalind Franklin.

The omission is intentional, and though hers is not a household name today, it can be argued that Franklin’s work as a scientist was key to Watson and Crick’s own achievement, even if it was work not obtained in the most legitimate of ways. At least, that’s the argument made in “Double Helix,” an amazingly adept and complex musical production, which, on its own, is quite the achievement given that the book, music and lyrics were all written by Myers herself.

It’s rare that East End audiences have the opportunity to witness the birth of a musical, and Bay Street’s ability to bring this world premiere to life under the steady hand of the theater’s artistic director, Scott Schwartz, who directs the show and has shepherded the project since its inception, makes it a production not to be missed.

By way of backstory —“Double Helix” began life on Bay Street’s stage as a reading during the theater’s New Works Festival in spring 2022, and Schwartz, who first met Myers in 2018 when they were both working on productions in Copenhagen, has worked closely with the composer and playwright in the years since to bring it to fruition. Schwartz’s innate understanding and appreciation of the material, as well as his long involvement in the project, is evident in his well-conceived direction and construction of the show.

A stellar cast led by the enormously talented Samantha Massell, who stars as Rosalind Franklin, talented pit musicians under the musical direction of keyboardist Patrick Sulken, and scenic designer Alexander Dodge’s clever, yet simple rotating set, all elevate the experience enormously. The turntable stage turns at key moments in the action, cleverly allowing set pieces and furnishings to magically be delivered onto the scene through swinging doors as the characters stroll in place along the moving platform as if they are walking across the King’s College campus.

Kudos, also, to the design team who created the elaborate mid-century modern photographic equipment used in the labs, as well as a large model that figures prominently in the final solving of the DNA puzzle and the projections of complex mathematical equations that are present throughout much of the production.

The bulk of the action in “Double Helix” takes place in the decade prior to the 1962 Nobel Prize ceremony (ironically the same ceremony where Sag Harbor’s own John Steinbeck received his Nobel Prize in Literature) and begins in London in 1951 with the arrival at King’s College of Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant British scientist who is there on a fellowship to work on the DNA puzzle alongside lab-mate Maurice Wilkins.

An expert in X-ray crystallography, Franklin is well regarded, having trained in Paris under Jacques Mering (Matthew Christian), the preeminent authority in the field. But Franklin and Mering, who are both Jewish, have a history that goes well beyond their work in the lab, which is problematic and, presumably, one of the primary reasons Franklin is eager to accept the London post and get out of Paris.

Meanwhile, the research team at King’s College is overseen by John Randall (Thom Sesma), an ambitious task master who is driven to see his scientists succeed in their mission at any and all costs. The competition in the DNA race is fierce and includes not only the Cambridge team of Watson and Crick, but also the legendary scientist Linus Pauling, who is making great strides in his research at Caltech in California.

Franklin’s role on the team is to capture the crucial X-ray photograph of DNA that will help to reveal its perplexing structure and she works feverishly and fast on the puzzle. While she is supported in her work by her eager — and boyishly charming — assistant, Raymond Gosling (Anthony Joseph Costello), less thrilled to have Franklin on the case is William Bates (Tuck Sweeney), who calls her “Rozy” (a name she hates) and isn’t particularly skilled at hiding his anti-Semitic tendencies, and Wilkins, who not only treats Franklin as his subordinate rather than his peer, but quickly strikes a deal with Watson and Crick to share her work with them if they agree to share with him any resulting glory.

Franklin’s only true confidante on the campus is Adrienne Weill (Amy Justman), a French-born physicist and a student of Marie Curie who, like Franklin, is female, Jewish and understands what it’s like to be a minority in the male-dominated world of science.

While the confident (some would say arrogant) Franklin knows her stuff and holds her own in the academic boys club, Wilkins suffers from a form of PTSD related to his time in the United States working on the Manhattan Project, where he helped develop the nuclear technology that was ultimately deployed against the Japanese citizenry in the waning days of World War II. There are hints that a mental breakdown followed in conjunction with his work on the project, resulting in the termination of parental rights to his young son, who still lives in the U.S. with his mother.

“Physics is the science of death, but biology is the science of life,” Wilkins reasons, and after experiencing the deadly speed with which nuclear technology was employed in the Manhattan Project, Wilkins is determined to go slow and steady to win the DNA race, and thereby, the admiration of his son — his ultimate goal.

Meanwhile, Franklin’s philosophy is the exact opposite. She is determined to work at the greatest speed possible, not because she is driven to win the Nobel Prize, but because there are other, more pressing personal deadlines looming for her that cannot be averted.

Though “Double Helix” tells a fascinating, if largely unknown and mostly true story of scientific pursuit and is chock full of soaring musical numbers (particularly memorable is Chatman’s song “Slow and Steady,” and Justman’s heartfelt rendition of “If You’re Lucky”), there are some missteps within the play’s structure. Mainly, they lie in the unfolding of relationships which never feel quite fully realized.

Particularly bothersome is Franklin and Mering’s romance, which seems rushed in the beginning, yet quickly and permanently falters over a seemingly trivial matter. Subsequently, when Franklin needs to consult with Mering about a key image she has captured in her work, he is unwilling to assist because of the severing of their personal relationship. It’s a plot twist that strays, if unintentionally, into the sadly stereotypical territory of women as distractions in a man’s world (after all, none of the men in the play seem to have problems balancing their work/love lives).

Also somewhat problematic is the speed and eagerness with which Maurice Wilkins succumbs to selling out Franklin’s work to Watson and Crick in exchange for a vague promise of shared glory. His quick trust feels overly simplistic and naive, making him inauthentically gullible for a world-class scientist. It would also be helpful if we were let in a little earlier about Franklin’s pending physical challenges. It’s a plot twist that comes late in the game and out of the blue, which lessens its impact.

But that’s all incidental. While at its core, “Double Helix” is a play that delves into the science of biology, it’s the science of physics that offers the deeper emotional message here — specifically, the unnegotiable reality of time’s passage and the undeniable fact that, no matter how much scientists work and rework the numbers, the inevitable progression of our lives is specific, finite and, in the end, impossible to slow or escape, though with thought and consideration, perhaps some of the outcomes might be altered.

While for the majority of the scientists in the play, it’s all about being first, for Franklin, it was never about the glory, but rather always about being human. As she says (and sings) throughout “Double Helix,” “Science always tells the truth.” In this era of rampant disinformation, deep fakes, Flat Earthers and fiction that is given equal weight to fact, “Double Helix” offers a tale about the vital importance of following truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, no matter where it leads us.

“Double Helix” runs through Sunday, June 18, at Bay Street Theater. In addition to the main cast, the team includes Kate Fitzgerald and Ethan Yaheen-Moy Chan as swings. Other members of the creative team include choreographer Addy Chan, orchestrations by Scott Wasserman, lighting designer Mike Billings, costume designer Ashley Soliman, sound designer Jon Weston, projection designer Andrew Lazarow with the LAB at Rockwell Group, hair and makeup designer Sara Plata, and production stage manager Kat West. The play is produced in association with Creative Partners Productions and Stacey Mindich Productions. For tickets, visit baystreet.org or call 631-725-9500. Bay Street Theater is on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor.

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