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Fermat's Last Tango

Theatre review by Seth Christenfeld

There's been a recent vogue of mathematically based theatre. Leading the way is Michael Frayn's brilliant but dense Copenhagen; that has been followed by David Auburn's fascinating although slightly flawed Proof. Riding on their coattails and doing a superb job of it comes the wildly enjoyable, off-the-wall Fermat's Last Tango, the only musical of the bunch.

More than 350 years ago, a French amateur mathematician named Pierre de Fermat wrote in the side of a notebook:

Where x+y=z, (xn)+(yn)=zn has no solutions where n is greater than two - I have discovered a marvelous proof that this margin is not large enough to contain.
For hundreds of years, arithmetically inclined people tried to figure it out; finally, in 1993, after seven years of holing himself up in his attic and working with numbers, Princeton professor Andrew Wiles found a working proof.

In the musical, Wiles is replaced by a fictionalized version of himself named Daniel Keane (Chris Thompson). The plot opens just as Keane has solved the proof; just as he's about to close the book on math for a while to spend some time with his wife (Edwardyne Cowan) and family, Fermat himself (the foppishly perfect Jonathan Rabb, surely the world's only combination tenor and thriller author) shows up. He brings Daniel to the AfterMath, where dead mathematicians go (get it?), and points out a hole in the proof. The rest of the 85-minute show is an arithmetical duel between the old and the new - Fermat, trying his hardest to preserve his fame, attempts to thwart Keane's progress at every step.

The show's best feature is clearly its score. The almost through-sung piece was created by the husband and wife team of Joshua Rosenblum and Joanne Sydney Lessner - he composed the music, she wrote the book, and they collaborated on the often clever lyrics. Occasionally, the words seem a little silly (who thought we'd ever hear the words "Shimura-Taniyama Conjecture" sung?), but that ends up being offset by the score. Rosenblum's thoroughly catchy music is mix of many styles - rock, jazz, tango (of course), even semi-operatic. His deft orchestrations lend the five-piece band a fuller sound than one might expect. At some points, the recitative comes in prodigious enough amounts that Tango feels less like a musical than like an opera with a handful of songs, but this is a minor quibble.

The cast of seven offer up strong performances. Thompson, in particular, seems the incarnation of a singing math professor. I suppose it would require a slight suspension of disbelief to accept that such a nebbishy type of guy would be able to catch a wife as sexy, funny, and talented as Cowan, but that's another minor quibble - she's excellent, and gets a chance to nearly stop the show with an endlessly clever number entitled "Math Widow." Mitchell Kantor, Gilles Chiasson, Christianne Tisdale, and Carrie Wilshusen provide earnest backup, playing alternately a chorus of reporters and a quartet of dead mathematicians.

Mel Marvin's direction works, though is undistinguished; Janet Watson's humorous choreography is somewhat stronger, particularly a very funny tango for three. James Morgan (who is also the York's Artistic Director) provides, as expected, another of his inventively simple sets - essentially a bare stage with units, but some particularly wacky numbers hop on in the AfterMath. John Michael Degan's lighting is a mostly pedestrian effort, but abetted by one strong effect (bright projections of the proof covering the stage toward the end); Lynn Bowling's costumes are better for the mathematicians than for the earthbound characters.

If you're in the mood for a fun, light evening at the theatre, go see Fermat's Last Tango. If you're not, you should be. Who knows - you may just learn something.

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Fermat's Last Tango
Book by Joanne Sydney Lessner. Lyrics by Joanne Sydney Lessner and Joshua Rosenblum. Music by Joshua Rosenblum. Directed by Mel Marvin.
Through December 31
The Theatre at St. Peter's Church, Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 239-6200