Let’s get one thing out of the way. Tomfoolery, Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray’s 1980 revue of “words and music of Tom Lehrer,” is nerdy. Some might even consider it dated, but Lehrer’s patently dry and dark brand of wit withstands the test of time; it just feels “old fashioned” because no contemporary humorist knows how replicate it. This ain’t Weird Al.
In other words, you need to use more than a couple brain cells to enjoy the jaunty production currently playing at Elden Street Players. Professor Tom Lehrer is best known for pithy ditties like “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park” and “The Masochism Tango,” each laced with heady highbrow “Hah-vard” lampoonery and a dash of hippy-pinko anarchism. Director Adriana Hardy and Scenic Designer Ian Mark Brown evoke colors and images of the 1960’s to transport us back to Lehrer’s musical hay day.
The two standout performers of the cast are Matthew Moose Thompson and Matthew Scarborough. Thompson reveals a gorgeous voice and nimble comic versatility, ranging from hilariously understated delivery in “My Home Town,” to appropriate Harvard grad twittery in “When You Are Old And Gray.” His interpretation of “The Hunting Song” is, I dare say, even funnier than Mr. Lehrer’s original performance, and it is one of the rare instances in this production where an “over-the-top” characterization truly works.
Scarborough makes us realize that even singers like Pavarotti are relatively dime-a-dozen compared to those who can patter the Periodic Table of Elements and new math equations with such ease. I suspect by day he works as an astro-physicist, or a hacker, or a cryptologist, or something along those lines. One thing is certain, when “we all go together,” Scarborough is the man I want engineering my fall-out shelter.
The remaining ensemble members achieve winning chemistry as a group, but mixed results in their individual performances. Matt Williams, while a dynamic and funny performer, has some diction issues that prove problematic in some of Lehrer’s busier verses – most particularly when essaying French and German accents. Becca Harney is a formidable vocalist, proving equally proficient as legit soprano and belter, but she lacks the comedic nuance and timing to nail the satire of “In Old Mexico” and “We Will All Go Together.” Caroline Simpson brings an adorably charismatic and expressive stage presence, but she is woefully underutilized in this production, serving no good purpose other than to be a featured dancer in a show where dancing serves no good purpose. The libretto was originally written for an ensemble of four actors, and while some productions feature an extended cast, expanding to five actors without some redistribution of material leaves a fifth actor looking like a fifth wheel.
Music Director Tom Fuller tinkles the ivories to perfection, with periodic deadpan narration. His simple solo performance of “The Old Dope Peddler” is a highlight of the evening, suggesting we might find equal (or greater) enjoyment in his “solo show” of Tomfoolery at a local piano bar.
Which brings me to my only real gripe with Mackintosh and Ray’s adaptation: the ensemble staging concept frequently undermines and undercuts the comedic potential of Lehrer’s music, specifically in literal stagings of songs like “I Got It From Agnes,” “I Hold Your Hand In Mine,” and “The Masochism Tango.” To her credit, Hardy’s staging manages to elevate the comedy on a couple occasions: “The Vatican Rag” is a hoot (with frantic choreography by Robyn Avalon), and Hardy puts a clever and timely spin on the seemingly chauvinistic “When You Are Old And Gray.”
Quibbles aside, Tomfoolery is rarely produced these days, and Elden Street’s production is solid and entertaining. It ends with a “Springtime for Hitler” worthy bang that I’ll be giggling about for weeks. Judging by last night’s sold-out audience, you’re going to want to get tickets quickly. This show will sell out.
Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with one intermission.
Tomfoolery runs through February 16, 2013 at Elden Street Players at The Industrial Strength Theatre – 269 Sunset Park Drive, in Herndon, VA. For tickets, call (703) 481-5930 or order them online.