Tom Foolery: Pretty Much What It Says on the Rickety-Tickety-Tin

tomfooleryheroIf you know the music of Tom Lehrer, underground satirist of the 1950s and counter-cultural television star of the 1960s, Tom Foolery is a revue that will trigger waves of nostalgia. The musical and its song selection date from 1980, only a few years removed from Lehrer’s active performance days which, it is worth noting, are now 40-50 years ago.

While some of the songs are hopelessly dated, enough remains from the repertoire of the now 89 year-old Lehrer (as of April 9) to still carry a satiric punch. “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” and “The Masochism Tango” are timeless classics, but “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie” (“Ol’ times there are not forgotten/Whuppin’ slaves and sellin’ cotton”) and “She’s My Girl” (“To Ed or Dick or Bob/She may be just a slob,/But to me, well,/She’s my girl”) are aimed at a kind of Eisenhower-era perspective that is at least a quarter-century too old to be funny. This show may still find an audience, but it is unlikely to be anyone under 30 unless they’re doing historical research.

Of the cast of six, Michael Thurber stood out for his vocal abilities. His performance of “The Elements,” a rapid nonsense patter song consisting of just the names of the chemical elements set to the melody of the “Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert and Sullivan, was sufficiently entertaining that the audience was still rooting for him despite a couple of stumbles and cheered him afterward. Ken McPherson did well with a prize solo in “The Masochism Tango.”

Vivienne Carrette was saddled with a solo in “I Got It from Agnes,” a sniggering wink-and-nod song about venereal disease that Lehrer performed in the 1960s only at his live shows but declined to record, cleaning it up (and changing the name from “Sally”) specifically for Tom Foolery at the tail end of the sexual revolution. By the time Lehrer finally caved in and recorded it himself in 1996, the AIDS epidemic had turned the 30 year-old joke into something far darker than was intended.

The remainder of the cast, Alyce Fitzgerald, Christopher Margadonna, and Paul N. Oliver, were clearly struggling with the challenging vocal material. Lehrer’s melodies are deceptively simple and the orchestra under music director Maria Day nailed their task, but that simplicity makes it impossible to hide even the occasional off-note.

American television was changing in the 1960s, especially variety shows that moved away from the staid and inoffensive but enormously popular Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971) into directions as divergent as the brilliant Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-1969) and the puerile and stupid Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-1973). Something of an unusually erudite predecessor, That Was the Week That Was aired briefly (1964-1965) and gave Lehrer the opportunity to write (but not perform) a series of topical songs that he eventually recorded himself and released on the album That Was the Year That Was right after the show was canceled. Many of those songs became among his best known and are in Tom Foolery, including “So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III),” “Pollution,” “Werner von Braun,” “The Vatican Rag,” and “We Will All Go Together When We Go.” While the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation receded with the collapse of the Soviet Union, if anything “National Brotherhood Week” is a rare Lehrer song that has become more relevant: “Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,/And the Catholics hate the Protestants,/And the Hindus hate the Muslims,/And everybody hates the Jews.”

Tom Foolery, directed by Lee Rush, The Community Players, Jenks Auditorium, 350 Division St, Pawtucket, RI. Through Apr 9. About 1h45m including 15-minute intermission. Refreshments available. Free parking, handicap accessible. (401)726-6860. Tickets: Facebook:

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