Satire should sting a little bit. At its best--razor-edged, likely to confuse and offend a portion of its audience--satire cuts to the heart of dusty, unchallenged societal hypocrisy.
There was no American era quite as perfect as the 50s and early 60s for a satirist like Tom Lehrer to come along. If you believed the propaganda, America was a nation of Don and Betty Drapers, uniformly flush with confidence, living the high life amid a booming post-war economy, smugly certain of the godly righteousness of their leaders and their nation. It took people like Lehrer, the Beats, and the nascent folk movement to point out the Emperor’s decidedly minimalist wardrobe choice.
While Dylan was solemn and frustrated, and the Beats were joyous and wild, Lehrer’s weapon of choice was musical satire. He wielded his songs like a scalpel, slicing with precision at treasured myths of American life, a collection of which have been brought together in the revue “Tomfoolery,” now showing at the Denver Victorian.
Though this is veteran director Wade P. Wood’s first time at the helm of a musical revue, he keeps the ship largely on course as his cast of four rips through 25 of Lehrer’s classic songs in under two hours. There are plenty of groan-worthy puns and rather obvious jokes, but also lots of humor requiring some degree of thought--Lehrer’s other career as a Harvard-educated mathematician is a dead giveaway that intelligence and a sense of humor often go hand in hand.
The show begins with “Be Prepared,” featuring the entire cast led by Clark Bomer Brittain as a sort of demented scout leader, all wearing boy scout-style neckerchiefs and marching down the aisles to the stage. That’s followed by one of Lehrer’s best-known songs, “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” which sounds like a sweet and ordinary 1950s-style love song until you realize the murderous nature of the singers.
Soon we move on to Lehrer’s time at Harvard, with songs like “Bright College Days” and “Fight Fiercely Harvard,” which hilariously features Amanda Goldrick as an enthusiastic if not entirely coordinated cheerleader. And in a most amazingly tongue-tripping demonstration of clear diction and memorization, Henrik Boes sings “The Element Song,” a listing of the periodic table set to the tune of the “Major-General’s Song” from “Pirates of Penzance.”
With songs this old--especially satiric songs--there are bound to be a few clunkers.
Indeed, when the show first came out in 1981, reviewers noted the risk of boring the audience, given the dated nature of the pieces even then. But there is still fun to be found within them.
Paula Jayne Friedland stoically stands up to the chore of singing “In Old Mexico,” an almost too-dated song which gets a lot of mileage out of the apparent hilarity that people from different countries speak differently than we do--for instance the pronunciation of the “j” sound in “Guadalajara.” But even this song has buried gems of Lehrer-esque wordplay within: the song as a whole may not be that funny, but rhyming “toros” with “morose” is hilarious.
The misses are few, and merely the side-effect of the passage of time, not the fault of the cast. Soon the show is back on track with “When You’re Old And Grey,” the most honest love song ever, chronicling in detail a couple’s likely decline: “I’ll lose my virility/And you your fertility/And desirability...”
And the “Vatican Rag” alone is worth the price of admission, between Missy Moore’s choreography and the cast dressed as nuns singing lines like “Genuflect! Genuflect! 2-4-6-8 / Time to transubstantiate!”
The piece is a revue, and as such it suffers from the thinness typical of this type of show. But surprisingly perhaps, most of the material holds up fairly well; perhaps enough time has passed that the songs have moved past dated and into the category of nostalgia. Cast and director have treated Lehrer’s work with love and enthusiasm, bringing to life the work of a beloved American humor icon in a show that will amuse both old fans and new.