Tom Lehrer, a master of irreverence, wrote cheerful songs that slammed core Establishment values in the ’50s and also land punches today. I didn’t expect that they would. But a collection of Lehrer’s songs called “Tomfoolery” at Act II Playhouse erases any doubt.
Like Lehrer’s songs, the show “Tomfoolery” is a fox camouflaged as a chicken: harmlessly cute on the outside with stiletto teeth lurking underneath. It’s performed joyfully by four ever-smiling actor/singers — Act II leader Tony Braithwaite, who directs the show; Jamison Foreman, who also provides the show’s keyboard accompaniment; Tracie Higgins and Patrick Romano. Theirs is an assignment Iago might like. Look really good. Be really nasty.
At the very beginning of “Tomfoolery,” which has already been extended a week, the cast delivers Lehrer’s ode to springtime: There’s one thing that makes spring complete for me/ And makes every Sunday a treat for me/ All the world seems in tune on a spring afternoon/ As we poison the pigeons in the park.
From there, it’s on to mother love (Lehrer rhymes Oedipus with platypus), a tango ode to masochism, a singing treatise on new math, and the pleasures of misery loving company. That last theme applies to the show’s finale and perhaps Lehrer’s most well-known song: “We Will all go Together When We Go,” a cheerful anthem to nuclear death.
Most of these songs last less than a couple of minutes. A few don’t even directly address what they make fun of, including my favorite, “I Got It from Agnes.” I love my friends and they love me, it begins. We’re just as close as we can be/ And just because we really care/ Whatever we get we share. It’s Lehrer’s tribute to venereal disease.
The amazing thing about Lehrer is not just his knack for clobbering people with lyrics that skewer and with sweet tunes that might have been sung by a sprite, but that he got away with it. The ’50s and early ’60s are not known for their love of opposition. Someone in the New York Times described Lehrer’s muse as “not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.”
At first, in the ’50s, he sold recordings of his songs around Cambridge, Mass., where he was a Harvard student studying math. He had a cult following, then concert audiences, then LPs in wide release and a ’60s gig as resident songwriter for the satirical weekly TV show, “That was the Week That Was” — itself a breakthrough.
Then Lehrer disappeared into private life. He taught university math and an occasional course in musical theater. He will be 89 in April.
In the ’80s, none other than Cameron Mackintosh helped fashion Lehrer’s pieces into the show “Tomfoolery,” which Act II is performing on Parris Bradley’s attractive set of huge red letters that spell out the show’s title and skewed piano keys that appear to drop down from the stage ceiling.Act II is using social media and other means to try to attract younger audience members — people in their 20s and 30s may have heard his songs about the English language on Children’s Television Workshop’s show “The Electric Company” (two of them are in “Tomfoolery”) but they probably don’t know him by name. On opening night Friday, the audience was almost solidly middle aged and older and lapping up the show. I hope the millennials show up, too – they’ll find so much of “Tomfoolery” fresh and current.
—“Tomfoolery” is extended through April 2 at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler. 215-654-0200.