REVIEW WRITTEN BY ANDERS BACK
For Digital First Media
Once upon a time, not so long ago when the nation was in a similar state of turmoil and doubt, when there were fewer Americans and no Internet, there were artists called satirists.
They were writers and performers. Some were comedians to be sure, but stood apart. They generally avoided jokes about wives, kids, sports and celebrities and instead focused on politics, culture, and social mores in general. Notable among them were Lenny Bruce, Shelly Berman, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory and even the lovable Allan Sherman.
Today, anyone with an Internet connection and GarageBand can create a “satirical” song in seconds. Write pointed lyrics about some current event (link to a video of the event or garnish it with a meme), add winks and nods to past misdeeds by the person or group involved, create a jangling chord or three, upload the file and voila! When satire is everywhere, it’s nowhere.
When it came to musical social satire, in the mid-1950’s up to the mid-1960’s Tom Lehrer stood alone. Whether you love him or know nothing of him, go offline for a few hours and get a healthy live dose of the real stuff in “Tomfoolery” at Act II Playhouse in Ambler this month. If you are new to Lehrer, his own comment about his work will suffice as introduction: “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”
“Tomfoolery,” a 1980 musical revue created by Lehrer, Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray is not often performed in this region, more reason for those who don’t know Lehrer to see his songs performed by an energetic cast with strong voices, lots of panache and a respect for the material. Every musical form is an inspiration for Lehrer and he uses ballads, waltzes, ragtime, classical and rock music to trample conformity.
What makes Lehrer a great satirist is his capacity to shock wittily, a gift which has survived over a half century of increasingly horrifying events and yet still makes some audiences pause for a beat or two before applauding any given Lehrer song. That’s why the rapper 2 Chainz sampled Lehrer’s “Old Dope Peddler” in his 2012 debut album.
With memorable tunes such as “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park”(the show opener), “The Masochism Tango,” “The Vatican Rag” and the rousing “So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III)” this is not a show for kids but any adult with a true sense of humor will enjoy the energy the Act II cast brings to the music. Director Tony Braithwaite stars with ace keyboardist Jamison Foreman, Tracie Higgins and Patrick Romano.
Highlights include Romano as the kindly, avuncular “Old Dope Peddler” and the remorseful murderer in “I Hold Your Hand In Mine” while Higgins’ lilting descriptions of her partner’s loving lacerations of her body in “The Masochism Tango” is a splendid interpretation of one of Lehrer’s sharpest musical jolts.
His musical critique of German rocket scientist “Wernher von Braun” who designed missiles for Hitler and then equally efficiently for NASA features some of his best vitriol:
Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
But some think our attitude
Should be one of gratitude,
Like the widows and cripples in old London town
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun.
Braithwaite and Higgins’ touching duet about their expectations of mutual loathing as they age in “When You Are Old And Gray” might bring a tear to many a boomer couple in the audience. The whole cast does Lehrer’s famous “Vatican Rag” with Braithwaite wearing a mitre and the rest syncopating in nun’s habits and appropriately closes with “We’ll All Go Together When We Go” which is Lehrer’s pre-Strangelove paean to the Flame Deluge, the Big One, World War III, in which he finds comfort knowing we won’t be alone at the tomb:
Oh we will all burn together when we burn.
There’ll be no need to stand and wait your turn.
When it’s time for the fallout
And Saint Peter calls us all out,
We’ll just drop our agendas and adjourn.
For those who think Lehrer’s genius required meanness, listen carefully to the simple lessons in the songs “Silent E” and “L-Y” which he wrote for the children’s show The Electric Company in the 1970’s. Parris Bradley’s set consisting mainly of the show’s name in giant letters, works perfectly for those children’s songs as well as a framework for the cast to peek through, hide behind and lean against.