All Things Entertaining and Cultural
TOMFOOLERY, Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, in Ambler, Pa., through Sunday, April 2 — Tom Lehrer is the smartest, most devilish, most perceptive, and most funny of the editorial songwriters. His work may be 50-years-old, but he gives Seth McFarlane, Matt Groening, and Parker and Stone a run for their money. His work for NBC’s “That Was the Week That Was” in the mid-60s was reason alone to watch the program. Lehrer tackled subjects that remain ripe for discussion today, such as pollution, nuclear armament, racial and ethnic relationships, and good old devolving love. Several of his songs would give this era’s politically correct, or least PETA folks, apoplexy. And may they!
Lehrer turns age 89 on April 9, and his work, that includes the dated along with the timely/timeless, lives on. Possibly only in some ancient memories but enough to generate a revue of his material by no less than Cameron Mackintosh with Robin Ray and to stimulate a production directed by and starring Tony Braithwaite at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse.
Braithwaite’s production is a brisk 75 minutes, well maybe 80, and it covers a lot Lehrer’s prolific satirical oeuvre, including his ballad mocking rocket scientist Werner van Braun, his appeal to tolerance, “National Brotherhood Week,” and his deliciously irreverent “Vatican Rag.”
Even with the variety, there were a few Lehrer tune I hankered to hear that “Tomfoolery” kept from me, such as his hilarious “Send in the Marines,” and his nasty riff on all traditional folk songs by use of an Irish Folk Song, perfect for St. Patrick’s Day, “Rickety-Tickety-Tin.”
Perhaps my appetite for Lehrer is greater than most. His form of humor is more in keeping with mine than what would come later’60s — I am a reluctant child of my time. — and I enjoyed his ability to be an equal-opportunity offender, able to pick on and razz all segments of the political spectrum.
Tony Braithwaite is the perfect person to present Tom Lehrer. Their styles are similar, friendly but acid and quick as Tornado, Zorro’s horse.
Braithwaite played the role of raconteur, introducing Lehrer to an audience that might not know him as well as I, and reveling in the larky, pointed tunes in which Lehrer specialized.
Lehrer came through. So much of his work, and pieces that aren’t heard, such a lament about Johnson era Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, and “Rickety Tickety Tin,” which I remember being included in earlier renditions of “Tomfoolery,” go straight to the jugular, appealing to both common sense and the intellect. Not to mention the funny bone.
I do, however, notice a difference between a time when Lehrer’s ditties were new and today. Popular music is so monolithic today. People can choose what they want from iTunes, Amazon, etc., but on media, radio and variety television, you hear little variation and no satire that isn’t presented by a cartoon character.
The Act II cast, though good at presenting songs and finding the obvious comedy, usually missed the bite in the pieces. The most brittlely naughty passages seemed to arise when Lehrer was heard on tape introducing some of his pieces, as he did in the concerts he performed into the early ’70s. (In his non-performing life, he was a mathematics professor at MIY and Stanford.)
I heard and enjoyed the jokes but missed the venom in the satire.
As I saw in both “Forbidden Broadway” and “Kiss Me Kate” at Act II, there was a failure to go beyond the surface of some tunes, to find the meanness Lehrer bragged of, and bring it forward.. A cast doesn’t have to do much with “The Vatican Rag,” Its humor and triple rhymes — processional/confessional, religion he’ll, original — serve their own purpose. Same with “National Brotherhood Week,” with its fabulous line, “The Hindus hate the Moslems, and everybody hates the Jews,” or “Who’s Next?,” a song about the spreading of the atom bomb to various countries, also having a great passage about Middle East relations — “Egypt’s going to get one too, just to use on you-ou know who…so Israel’s getting tense, wants one in self-defense; the Lord’s our shepherd says the psalm, but just in case, we better get a bomb!” It’s the subtler tunes, the ironic love songs that promise indifference when one is old and gray, or the songs that make the respectable blush that need more behind amusing but incomplete staging.
For instance, in “Masochism Tango,” some opportunities are missed. For one, when Lehrer sang, “At your command, before you here I stand, my heart is in my hand…” he would scream after the last line, as if in sado-masochistic frenzy, someone really pulled someone’s cardiac muscle from his chest and was exposing it. For fun, when the two notes sound at the end of each verse, one can dress up the song with an “Ole!”
I noticed some of the songs were doctored, and I couldn’t figure out why, It makes sense to replace the forgotten Sheriff Clarke and the late Lena Horne (my almost anagram) with an updated Oprah Winfrey and Steve Bannon, but why change “The breakfast garbage you throw into the bay, they drink for lunch in San Jose” in “Pollution?” Does Act II think its audience won’t know where San Jose is or its relationship to San Francisco? It’s not that I mind some rewriting, I just didn’t understand the need for most of it. Surely, the line in “Folk Song Army” about Jimmy Cracked Corn is wittier than the line that replaced it. If the audience can get “So Long, Mom’s” reference “Brink-e-ly” and “Hunt-e-ly,” they’ll pick up the rest.
Did I have a good time? Yes. Would I recommend this show? Yes. But I have to admit I did warble some of the numbers in the car going home so I could hear them as I like them.
Tony Braithwaite was a cordial host and sang and danced with his usual effortless aplomb. Tracie Higgins also acquitted herself well.
Braithwaite and Higgins, who have paired or been castmates in several shows, were joined by one newcomer who made an impression and a Philadelphia journeyman actor who revealed new talents that make me want to see more of him as a performer in musicals.
Of all the cast, Patrick Romano seemed to convey the most venom as he sang. Romano had an enthusiasm that was attractive and entertaining.
I don’t know that I’ve seen Jamison Foreman in such a large role, his stint in the Walnut’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” being the part I remember best.
In “Tomfoolery,” Foreman turns out to be a multiple-threat, spiritedly playing the piano, which was Lehrer’s instrument. (Act II uses the tape of Lehrer asking his audience to image his piano as an 88-string guitar because it’s more appropriate instrument for “Folk Song Army.”) He also sings and dances well, seeming to get into the simple but contagious rhythms of Lehrer. Foreman did a bang-up job batting out the Periodic Table of Elements, which Lehrer set to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” and which is a favorite party piece of the actor Daniel Radcliffe.
Parris Bradley’s set was simple in concept, six-foot tall read letters spelling Tomfoolery, but the cast made good use of the letters’ height as hiding places and openings in “o’s” and “e’s” for windows. The “e” also served a great purpose in a number Lehrer wrote to show how an added silent “e” changes a word, as in “hop” and “hope,” Sonny Leo, who one missed at the piano, meaning no offense to Foreman but because he is such a jolly fixture for Act II revues, contributed the lively dance to “The Vatican Rag,”