Reviewed by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
"Tomfoolery," now playing at Vokes Theatre, is a lively revue of Tom Lehrer's satirical songs, with something to amuse and offend everyone. Many of Lehrer's songs date from the late 1950s and early 1960s, but his cynical take on issues such as racial prejudice, violence and sexually transmitted disease, remains timely. With his uncanny ability to find a rhyme for anything (Did you know that "Oedipus" works with "platypus"?), Lehrer manages to find humor in serious topics, although individual playgoers may find some topics they cannot laugh about.
Any "Tomfoolery" director -- at Vokes it is Russell R. Greene -- has considerable leeway in deciding how to stage the review. Greene has created a 1950s television show, complete with a test pattern at intermission and jingles such as "Ajax, the Foaming Cleanser," "I Love Bosco" and Kennel Ration's "My Dog's Better Than Your Dog." Everything visible is black, white or shades of gray. The decision to provide black, white and gray walls, furniture, costumes, hair, makeup -- even houseplants -- and contrast them with colorful songs and energetic performances is an approach that may work conceptually for some audience members. Whether it works as a feast for the eyes through two acts is more questionable.
As a concept, the 1950s TV setting is at times confusing: Are the performers making fun of people exactly like themselves who lived in the 1950s, are they making fun of 1950s TV characters, or are they detached commentators on the craziness of our world? The perspective keeps shifting. The ensemble of seven (Judi Ann Mavon, Kendall Hodder, Sheila Rehrig, James A. Fitzpatrick, David Herder, Peri Chouteau and Peter Stark) plus piano man Todd Gordon all sing admirably and perform in a lively and engaging manner, but their surprise and shock at the songs their colleagues sing undermines the idea that they are rehearsing numbers they all know.
The script (an adaptation by Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray) begins with a claim that Lehrer set out "to prolong adolescence beyond all previous limits," a fact that explains the appeal of his naughtiness to the teenager in us all. (Remember how you tittered the first time you heard his spin on the Boy Scout motto Be Prepared?)
The detached and derisive handling of heavy themes suggests that Tom Lehrer succeeded at nurturing his inner teenager. His persona also may encompass the effete, inebriated collegian of "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" (sung by Hodder so deliciously it made one long to see the actor as Bertie Wooster in "Jeeves"). The only topic Lehrer seems truly passionate about is the idiocy of folk music, particularly protest songs. The topic of war is merely a source of amused cynicism. As the script jokes, "World War II produced many hit songs, although it was not primarily a musical." Lehrer's well-known line about a cataclysmic World War III -- "I'll look for you when the war is over, an hour and a half from now" -- makes light of the possibility that there may be no one left.
The staging of a musical revue can be a challenge. When some performers sit on the sofa to watch other performers, the Vokes production seems static. However, there is some delightful choreography, especially for the enthusiastic "Vatican Rag" (by the ensemble). Another high point is the reprised "Hannuka in Santa Monica" (Choteau and Herder). Herder's straitlaced looks, with his conservative tie and striped shirt, make him especially goofy effervescing with the perky Choteau in that vaudeville routine -- and later in his rendition of "The Masochism Tango."
It is not a fatal flaw that Lehrer shuns seriousness. Unlike, say, Jacques Brel when he is being satirical, Lehrer resembles the adolescent afraid of being ridiculed for depth of feeling. He stays aloof and superior -- while racing to poke fun at himself before someone else does. However, as no theatergoer needs a steady dose of deep feeling, "Tomfoolery" offers clever wit and a pleasant trip down Memory Lane.
Mario Cruz was the music director. Stephen McGonagle designed the set; Mike Howard, the lighting; and Bill Triessel, the sound. Joanne Powers was producer. The production runs through May 19. For further information, call (508) 358-4034.