Act II Playhouse presents Tom Lehrer’s ‘Tomfoolery’

Objects (of satire) are closer than they appear

Act II Playhouse’s current production of Tomfoolery, a revue of Tom Leher's music, adapted by Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray, may be categorized in several ways. It’s a tribute to the comic genius of lyricist/composer Lehrer, who rose to fame in the 1960s for his outrageously wicked lampoons of political and social life. It’s a sing-along for boomers who grew up watching This Was the Week That Was. It’s a much-needed intervention for those of us who haven’t cracked a smile since Election Day.

The "Folk Song Army," left to right: Patrick Romano, Tracie Higgins, Jamison Foreman, and Tony Braithwaite. (Photo by Bill D'Agostino)

No time like the present

For 75 minutes without intermission, four gifted actors take the audience on a not-so-sentimental journey through Lehrer’s songbook. This trip is not for the faint of heart. With surgical precision and gleeful irreverence, Lehrer’s songs skewer every cultural idol, from the sanctity of the Catholic Church to the pretense of equality. You would think this material would be dated, but thanks to our present commander-in-chief, it’s as fresh and tasty as Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recusal. Case in point, this verse from Lehrer’s “National Brotherhood Week”:

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
And everybody hates the Jews.

Tony Braithwaite, in his fifth year as artistic director of Act II Playhouse, directs this production and also gives a standout performance, as does Tracie Higgins, previously seen at Act II in the company’s election satire Electile Dysfunction and 1812 Productions’ To the Moon. With commanding presence, comedic swagger, and devilish intonation, Braithwaite breathes new life into lyrics that have collected dust for 50 years. When he dons a conical papal crown and sings “The Vatican Rag,” the audience convulses with laughter. Meanwhile, Higgins, in a demure blue dress, reigns hilarious with her “nasty woman” interpretation of “The Masochism Tango”: “Let our love be a flame, not an ember/Say it's me that you want to dismember.”

Full circle

Lehrer isn’t a typical singer/songwriter. A Harvard-educated Phi Beta Kappa mathematician, he couldn’t resist penning an ode to the periodic table of elements -- set to a Gilbert and Sullivan tune. A product of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Lehrer has a repertoire that skewers liberals as well as conservatives, as evidenced in Tomfoolery’s inclusion of a song bashing the “peace and justice” platform of the folk-music scene.

I found myself singing along with tunes I hadn’t thought about since I was in high school and marveling at the back-to-the-future timeliness of Lehrer’s lyrics. The racism, religious intolerance, and nuclear fearmongering of the 1960s have not gone away. Nor has the need for biting satire. As Braithwaite pointed out during a brief monologue, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel all stand on Lehrer’s shoulders. We tend to reserve those laurels for Lenny Bruce and Mort Saul. But there would be no Saturday Night Live if Lehrer hadn’t crashed the network gates with his brand of musical political satire in the 1960s.

Which brings me to the ultimate question: Does Tomfoolery speak to the under-30 set, for whom every song in the show is new ground? To answer this, I latched on to a couple of twentysomethings after the show. “We loved it,” they chimed, before running off for double mocha lattes. And why shouldn’t they? With the nuclear codes in the trigger-happy small hands of a man eager to launch a new arms race, we need all the laughter we can get. 

Our readers respond

Sanford Zane Meschkow

of Wynnewood, PA on March 08, 2017

Perhaps some of Tom Lehrer's material hasn't aged well, but it's always time to remind students and academics to "Let no other's work evade your eyes!"

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