A Child's Garden, mentioned briefly last week, is a musical about—well, it isn't about anything. It shows us Robert Louis Stevenson, broke and ailing in San Francisco, composing the poems that became A Child's Garden of Verses. It doesn't explain how or why a Scotsman with weak lungs turned up in a bayside city noted for its high annual rainfall (he was pursuing a married woman), or why a known writer should be so impoverished (his parents had cut off his stipend). Nor does it convey anything, except through the verses it quotes, about what sort of writer Stevenson was—a morbidly troubled, restless soul, attracted to stories of double lives and switched identities. His West Coast stay was one of many attempts to distance himself from his rigid Presbyterian family. When Fanny Osbourne got her divorce and married him, he patched things up with them and was restored to prosperity. He saw A Child's Garden of Verses published while at Hyères, on the Riviera.

Stevenson's complex history and inner drives are far more dramatic than what A Child's Garden gives us: just another starving artist, coughing and scribbling as he recalls his idyllic childhood—in which everyone's clad in picture-perfect white, echoing Louis Rosen's pale, placid music. Its sound, like the show, offers no shape and—despite the lucid inventiveness of Robert la Fosse's choreography—no forward motion. It's a portrait of a condition in lieu of a story.

With Broadway given over to laborious lumps of work based on 19th-century masterpieces, it's perhaps natural for Off-Broadway to explore static and confined conditions as an alternative. If only "explore" were the operative word. There's an illusion of drama in Fermat's Last Tango: Its hero, Professor Daniel Keane, is a Princeton mathematician who has solved Pierre de Fermat's 330-year-old conundrum, "Can xn + yn = zn have any whole-number solutions when n is greater than 2?" Since no one ever went to a musical to learn higher math, the authors present this unpressing problem in time-honored theatrical terms, as a metaphor for adultery: In his sparsely furnished garret, Professor Keane has passionate encounters with a Frenchman three centuries dead. "All your friends will suspect an affair," Fermat warns him as they tango together—he insists on leading, too, and is lubriciously delighted to point out that Keane's proof "contains a hole." Naturally, it's a chance remark by Mrs. Keane that helps the latter close this threatening orifice, saving the day for a happy heterosexual finale.

Chris Thompson (left) and Jonathan Rabb in Fermat’s Last Tango: math appeal
photo: Carol Rosegg
Chris Thompson (left) and Jonathan Rabb in Fermat’s Last Tango: math appeal

Details

Fermat's Last Tango
By Joshua Rosenblum and Joanne Sydney Lessner
Theatre at St. Peter's
619 Lexington Avenue, at 54th Street 212-239-6200

Pete 'n' Keely
By James Hindman
John Houseman Theatre
450 West 42nd Street 212-639-6200

Foxy
By Ian McClellan Hunter and Ring Lardner Jr.,
songs by Johnny Mercer and Robert Emmett Dolan
Musicals Tonight! (closed)

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Rosenblum and Lessner take this enterprise no more earnestly than I take the above interpretation of it: Their Fermat dwells in a quadratic heaven called the AfterMath, where the likes of Euclid and Newton critique his manners and fret over Keane's computer-assisted skills. If the writers could shake off their cerebral subject matter, the work's silliness might be its saving grace. Fermat's Last Tango is neither terribly witty nor excitingly playful, but Rosenblum's pleasant, tinkly, comic-opera music keeps it speeding along painlessly, with cleverly varied rhythms. Mel Marvin's direction is efficient rather than imaginative, but he gets strong and vocally well-sustained performances from his three leads, Chris Thompson (Keane), Edwardyne Cowan (Mrs. Keane), and Jonathan Rabb (Fermat), with the bold character strokes of the latter two easily stealing focus from the blandly indecisive hero for whose soul they're battling. I can't imagine what Andrew Wiles, the Princeton math professor who actually solved Fermat's poser in real life, must think of these carryings-on; presumably he just smiles and calculates his percentage.

Also in the silly-funny category—too much so for its predictability to be annoying—is Pete 'n' Keely, a two-person musical that employs pop standards to satirize a target so obvious that it slipped out of most humorists' gun sights decades ago: married-couple lounge acts of the Steve-and-Eydie type, pretending to be all lovey-dovey on excruciating TV specials. The long-dead target dances again, at least fitfully, because the hands in charge, having shot on this range before, are so quick on the draw. James Hindman's tenuous script stashes unexpected switchblades in its on-camera banter, eagerly flicked open in Mark Waldrop's seemingly genial staging. Drollest of all is the work of Patrick S. Brady, who prepared the hilarious, tongue-in-kitsch vocal arrangements, which run particularly high during two numbers certain to become camp classics: a jaw-dropping nadir in exploitation of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"; and a medley of songs with states' names, encapsulating the team's national tour, that includes the lyric "O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A/And that spells 'Dallas.' " Seconding Brady's demented spoofery are Bob Mackie's costumes, which simultaneously sum up and exact revenge for all the TV specials he's designed, rising to surreal heights of Las Vegan excess like midnight-blue brocade tuxes and patchwork lamé toreador pants. Troupers that they are, Sally Mayes and George Dvorsky wear these shudder-inducing garments with ease.

As this suggests, the two splendid performers at its center are the locus of both Pete 'n' Keely's pleasure and its principal problem. The better Mayes and Dvorsky are, the more you wish you could hear them sing the best of these songs as themselves. But they're scrupulous actors as well as first-rate vocalists, so instead of quicksilver, warm-toned Mayes and straightforward, golden-throated Dvorsky, we get neurotic, 12-stepped Keely and narcissistic lounge lizard Pete. Even as you laugh at their antics and bask in the pleasure of their voices, their smarmier moments make you reach instinctively for the remote.

Like Professor and Mrs. Keane, Pete 'n' Keely are reunited at the final curtain, proving that these are old-style musical comedies run thin. No one could sit down today, as the Bolton-Wodehouse-Kern team did in the 1910s, and simply build a show from a series of farcical misunderstandings. The alternative to heavy drama of the Hal Prince school, with its lynchings and tortures, is either the equally heavy pop-rock Masterpiece Theater, Cameron Mackintosh style, or a lightness that, to perk up the audience, must draw on arcane topics (like Fermat's Last Tango) or recycle familiar motifs (like Pete 'n' Keely).

If not for the success of The Full Monty, the only current Broadway musical that's willing to put a story about human beings and their feelings at its center without comment, the inescapable conclusion would be that the form was dead, since all its basic pleasures had now become rarefied and marginalized even in Off-Broadway's more intimate context. That The Full Monty's music is undistinguished isn't, in this context, such a big deal. What matters more is that it offers, as the pop-rock megaliths didn't, a convention through which a greater composer might engage the audience; it updates the traditional language of show music rather than attempting to replace it en bloc.

Updating the language is just what the Broadway musical did when it began. Though unlike any other form, it didn't simply appear out of nowhere. Its formative lyricists—Porter, Hart, Ira Gershwin—all took W.S. Gilbert as a model, but never tried to duplicate him exactly; they did not discount the contemporary evidence of their own ears. Their composers drew from a much wider range of sources, but always hewed to a tradition of song and of light entertainment. The Broadway artists who've striven, over the last 30 years, to turn the musical into opera seem not to have noticed that it evolved from light forms which had always coexisted with opera: Sullivan wrote at the same time as Wagner, Lehar at the same time as Alban Berg. Rodgers and Hammerstein, in trying to put the musical's dramatic component a notch higher, were building American equivalents for Yeomen of the Guard and Land of Smiles, not Die Meistersinger and Turandot.

Gilbert & Sullivan came to the fore when Mel Miller's raggedy but invaluable "Musicals Tonight!" gave the first performances of Foxy since 1964, which sets Volpone loose in Dawson City during the Yukon gold rush. Among the concert's many surprise delights was the restoration of a courtroom number, deleted before Broadway, that showed Mercer, master of casual colloquialism, emulating Gilbert's ornate rhymes and triple-tongued patter. The show has its weak points; the cast gave it a cheerful air of parlor entertainment, so that Jonson's fable of greed punished conveyed more of the Christmas spirit than anything else around. Flaws and all, it evoked what Broadway once was, and—with some mega-myths out of the way—might be again.

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