“Life is like a piano. What you get out of it depends on how you play it. “ ~ Tom Lehrer
Tom Lehrer’s Tomfoolery, as directed by Tony Braithwaite, is a wickedly wonderful celebration of musical wit and wordplay. Featuring superbly performed selections from Lehrer’s top satirical songs, interspersed with tidbits of the songwriter’s life and times, Act II Playhouse’s Tomfoolery goes beyond the rollicking revue to extend an incandescent look at the influence of Lehrer’s art in our present culture.
Now retired, Lehrer, a Harvard alumnus, mathematician and professor at various prestigious academic institutions, is infamous for his lyrical lampoons of the popular culture of the 1950s and ’60s, such as “New Math,” “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” “The Old Dope Peddler,” and the unsanctimonious “A Christmas Carol.” The show includes the above numbers, plus social commentaries like “National Brotherhood Week,” which skewers race relations; “I Got It from Agnes,” which gets laughs out of the unlikely subject of venereal disease; and “The Folk Song Army,” which mocks the deadly earnestness of folk singers:
We are the Folk Song Army,
Everyone of us cares.
We all hate poverty, war, and injustice,
Unlike the rest of you squares.
Also included are Lehrer’s parodies of the Cold War-era obsession with nuclear apocalypse, which retain their relevance. They include “The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be,” “So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III),” and an audience participation version of “We Will All Go Together When We Go.”
Braithwaite does doubly well as director and spirited performer, creating a solid, invigorating connection with his audience in both roles. High energy percolates throughout the show, with nicely orchestrated variations in the tempo of the tunes, interspersed with interesting and entertaining commentary (Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray are credited with the stage adaptation). Braithwaite and his fellow performers – musical comedienne Tracie Higgins, keyboard wizard and vocalist Jamison Foreman, and all-around talent Patrick Romano – form a foursome of fun onstage.
Higgins, moving elegantly in her sapphire blue frock, particularly shines with her voice and expressions in “The Masochism Tango” and “Oedipus Rex.” Forman’s performance of “The Elements,” in which the periodic table is pattered à la Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major-General’s Song,” garnered much worthy applause, and his sparkling accompaniment perks up every piece he plays. Patrick Romano’s candid expressions and physicality light up his every number. Choreographed by Sonny Leo, “The Vatican Rag,” a group number spectacularly led by Braithwaite wearing a glittering gold trimmed papal headpiece, is a holy riot.
Each number sports distinct style in terms of staging, lighting (designed by James Leitner), sound (John Stovicek), and Parris Bradley’s simply chic set, which is especially well-utilized during Lehrer’s educational songs “Silent E” and “L-Y,” composed for the children’s television program The Electric Company. Delightful movement onstage is enhanced by stylish costumes reflective of the 1950s and ’60s, designed by Jillian Keys.
This show offers constant entertainment. Never a dull moment!
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.