Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 66:25 December 14, 2000 p.14
Theatrical Mathematics
Numbers Play a Role on Stage

A fascination with numerology is [would seem to be] predominant, at least in two [or three] productions on New York stages this month. No dodecaphony, or cacophony, but lots of complex counterpoint. Copenhagen, the Tony-Award winning Michael Frayn play brilliantly directed by Michael Blakemore at the Royale Theatre, is winding down its first-cast run with Michael Cumpsty as the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, Philip Bosco as his mentor Niels Bohr, and Blair Brown as Bohr's wife and confidante Margarethe. The drama hinges on a mathematical calculation, or miscalculation: Did Heisenberg choose not to reveal to Albert Speer the fact that a nuclear reactor could produce plutonium-- and thus help make a bomb--in order to stop the Nazis from building a nuclear bomb? Or was he just acting out of ignorance, having miscalculated the critical mass of Uranium-235 needed to sustain an effective chain reaction?

A less earth-shattering but just as profound, and much more amusing calculation is at stake in Fermat's Last Tango, playing through December 31 at the York Theatre Company, located in St. Peter's Church at Citigroup Center (Lexington at 54th Street). The personal trials and fantasies of Andrew Wiles, the mathematician who in 1993 solved a problem that had been plaguing science for 350 years, are the subject. The husband/wife team of Joshua Rosenblum (music and lyrics) and Joanne Sydney Lessner (book and lyrics) has created a delightful romp for 7 singing actors and 5 musicians, swingingly conducted by Milton Granger[, deftly directed by Mel Marvin]. Chris Thompson stars as the Princeton professor Daniel Keane, modeled after the real-life Andrew Wiles[-- who plans to visit the show December 16(!)].

Unlike Margarethe Bohr in Copenhagen, who shares her husband's technical understanding, Keane's wife Anna is able to offer only emotional not intellectual support. Her lament, "Math Widow," one of the show's highlights [and one of the first songs written for the show], is performed with pizzazz by Edwardyne Cowan.

The supporting cast of immortal mathematicians past[, inhabiting the ingeniously designed "Aftermath,"] are all admirably energetic and fine: [soprano] Christianne Tisdale as Euclid, mezzo Carrie Wilshusen as Newton, tenor Gilles Chiasson as Gauss, and especially bass Mitchell Kantor as Pythagoras. Jonathan Rabb [(who happens to be the son of a Princeton history professor)] is a suitably foppish foil as the 17th-century French mathematician Pierre de Fermat, challenging Keane in TV quiz-show style to "Prove My Theorem."

At least ninety-five percent of the time, the witty lyrics approach the level of Gilbert or Sondheim, and the sendups of Andrew Lloyd Web[b]er are delicious. Notwithstanding a few metrical changes, the music is never too complex to be inaccessible. [Through-composed, it recalls stylistically the great Golden Apple of Jerome Moross, which this company has done marvellously, in several productions.]

The York is definitely the place for the best of old and new musical theater today. Their recent CD of the Betty Comden/Adolph Green/ Morton Gould musical Billion Dollar Baby, derived from their 1998 [Mufti Series] presentation of the work, is a knockout. It includes Adolph Green himself as the Announcer[, along with a cast of 12, featuring Kristin Chenoweth, Debbie Gravitte, and Marc Kudish, who sounds very much like baritone Robert McCormick--a former York Theatre star, who was the lead singer in the show's first recording (of excerpts) on Premier's "Broadway Dreams" CD ten years ago.

Another musical theatre work built, to some extent, on numerology, is Scott Everly's opera _The House of the Seven Gables_, based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, which premiered this month at Manhattan School of Music. A theme of seven chords reverberates throughout the piece, and seven ghosts roam the stage, in Linda Brovsky's direction, though these do not for some reason include the one most significant to the plot: Uncle Peter, for whose murder Clifford Pyncheon served 30 years in prison, though the dastardly deed was in fact committeed by his cousin Jaffrey, now running for judge. An election campaign placard, "EVERY VOTE COUNTS" brought the most audience laughter.

The libretto, by the composer, is wordy, but effective. At over three hours, the work could use some cutting, especially as the music is never very venturesome, rhythmically or harmonically. After a little raggedness in the strings at the opening, the orchestra settled down and performed well under David Gilbert.

The singing cast of 21 featured an adorable Kelly Smith as Phoebe; Christianne Rushton as Hepzibah, whose Act II aria is the most satisfying set piece; James Schaffner as Clifford; Dominic Acquilino as Jaffrey; and Bert Johnson as the catalytic Holgrave.

Manhattan School has been at the forefront at providing full productions for important American premieres. Last year's _A Death in the Family_ by William Mayer has just been released on Albany Records, in a sumptously produced 2-CD set that makes even better listening than did the original production. Onward and upward at Manhattan!]

Leonard Lehrman

[photo: http:/]

Blitzstein Cabaret
On Saturday, December 16, A Blitzstein Cabaret, featuring excerpts from the Blitzstein-Lehrman Tales of Malamud and Sacco and Vanzetti will be presented by The People's Voice Cafe at Workmen's Circle, 45 East 33 Street. [For information: tel. 212-787-3903]

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