Call this High School Musical: The Math Years. Of course, it remains to be seen whether music and popular melodies would have helped me catch on to calculus in high school. I rather doubt it. But seeing Mr. Menkhaus try certainly would have made it more fun.
So Calculus: The Musical attempts, in a remarkably ebullient way, to make something empirically un-fun fun. You simply have to credit the creators Marc Gutman and Sadie Bowman (who double as the performers) for their game try. Whether it entirely works is somewhat in question.
Staged appropriately in a classroom at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, Calculus: The Musical sets out to explain the history of calculus and some of the defining principles in a flip, Gen-X way. Isaac Newton plays with an action figure of himself (throwing it up and watching it fall) as he ponders instantaneous velocity. Thus begins the journey.
With a sparse set and either a keyboard or guitar as accompaniment, the two actors plow through scenes and songs, ripping through moments in math history at breakneck speed. They quite clearly know that, for the show to succeed at all, it won’t have time to pause and let the audience wonder what just happened. Let’s be honest: The majority of the Fringe crowd are neither math students nor teachers. And they’re probably, like me, too many years removed from the classroom to get any of the “in jokes.” So the genesis of the show — as a mnemonic tool for Gutman’s teaching — makes sense. Practically applied to a Fringe festival? Well, maybe not.
But it is clever. Bowman, specifically, is a pretty solid musician and singer. And the slideshows and videos that supplement the staging are endearing in their extreme low-budget way. (Special props for the Mr. T and Ghostbusters references during the song “Power Rule.”)
Note that all the songs should sound extremely familiar. Gutman and Bowman hijack popular melodies from artists as far-flung as Gilbert and Sullivan to Red Hot Chili Peppers, from The Beatles to They Might Be Giants. Again, the charm of the show — at least for the mathematically challenged — isn’t how they managed to rhyme some oddball math terms together (e.g., “I know that you got Sigma Notation/When your slices add in a big summation”). It’s how accessible the creators have made those concepts by shoehorning them into an Eminem tune.
In my preview for this show I wrote that whether or not it’s any good seems secondary to witnessing first-hand how the creators manage to pull this off. I was right. It might not be great theater in either the traditional or the Fringe sense of the word, but like some 19th-century curiosity show it’s something you just feel compelled to experience. Grade: B-
— Rodger Pille