Yes, songster, satirist and mathematics professor Tom Lehrer is still alive. He’s 84 now, or 29 degrees in Celsius. That’s his gag, and it’s in Tomfoolery, the revue based on his more evergreen songs, now an Appleseed Productions mounting at the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave.
Lehrer started writing songs while he was a student at Harvard in 1953. He put up his own cash, $15, to press a half-sized LP of his musical parodies when no record company would touch them. Academia remained his day job while he wrote part time for subsequent commercial LPs and some television programs, like the fondly remembered PBS kids’ show The Electric Company.
Tomfoolery was last staged by the former Syracuse Musical Theatre during the Civic Center’s Summerfest more than two decades ago, but the assortment of numbers keeps changing. Lehrer keeps renewing himself: You never get the same show twice.
Before somebody drags out George S. Kaufman’s well-worn saw about satire being something that closes on Saturday night, you should know that there’s much more going in his music than mere bite, sharp as it is. No less a personage that Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame, proclaims that Lehrer is “the funniest, cleverest man of the 20th century.” Radcliffe has made a specialty of Lehrer’s “The Elements,” which resets every item from the Periodic Table of the Elements to the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “Modern Major General” from The Pirates of Penzance.
Director Mark Allen Holt heroically undertakes “The Elements” at Appleseed and, in a moment of hubris, includes the full list in the program to allow the audience to check him. Holt also adds some new ones, like Viagrium and Santorium.
It’s significant that a young Englishman should seize upon Lehrer’s verbal energy and wit because you can tell by listening to the show that the composer grew up immersed in Gilbert & Sullivan. If W.S. Gilbert had lived long enough to experience something like American militarism or the vagaries of mathematics, he very likely would have written something like “Send the Marines” or “New Math.” Lehrer’s Americanism, however, also links him with the macabre sensibility of his countrymen, such as Edward Gorey, Charles Addams and Tim Burton, not to overlook internationally acclaimed Syracuse author Bruce Coville.
Consider “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” the frolicsome rhymed delight in ridding public places of those filthy creatures Woody Allen once called “rats with wings”: “We’ll murder them all amid laughter and merriment/ Except for the few we take home to experiment/ My pulse will be quickenin’/ with each drop of strychnine/ We feed to a pigeon/ It just takes a smidgen!/ To poison a pigeon in the park.” Then look up Gilbert’s lyrics for the “Lord High Executioner” in The Mikado.
Lehrer’s musical taste, however, is more eclectic. As he flourished in the pre-Beatles folksong revival, when the Kingston Trio and the Clancy Brothers were hot, he wrote a series of one-liners to express his contempt for the genre he has mastered easily. To prove it he penned one of the show’s several songs to achieve a life of its own away from the theater.
That’s the mock folk ditty, “The Irish Ballad,” delivered here appropriately by Megan Flanagan. Along with the mind-numbing refrain of “rickety-tickety-tin,” we learn that things were anything but fine in Glocca Morra, and the auld sod reeks with missing body parts and occasional pieces of skin.
As director Holt has assembled this selection, Lehrer’s lighter Gilbert-esque side alternates with the deep, dark Addams-Burton side. In the first act the gentle humor of “Fight Fiercely Harvard,” in which the effete scholars of the Ivy League sing a mild-mannered song for the team that stops short of aggression, comes early in the action. At the act’s end come numbers sure to have outraged Eisenhower-era recording executives: “National Brotherhood Week,” about how we all hate each other equally, and “I Got It From Agnes,” possibly the greatest affront to Ozzie and Harriet-styled conventional morality. Agnes, our own Typhoid Mary, spreads STDs, but everyone helps.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee famously said that he was a conservative, but he wasn’t angry about it. Change “conservative” to “liberal” or “lefty” and you have Tom Lehrer. Change a few decades, and his political viewpoint would come close to those of Jon Stewart or Bill Maher. Trenchant and hilarious as those guys can be, nobody is mounting a stage show of their best material. Lehrer also bears a relationship to Doonesbury comic strip creator Garry Trudeau, who has written for the stage, but he never develops reappearing narrative characters.
Lehrer’s most political topics run to popular accommodation of industrial pollution, nuclear weapon proliferation, the morally checkered past of German-American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, and the bigotry of the U.S. South, now called the Red States. One member of the cast, who admitted being a lifelong Republican, declared herself at ease with the humor.
Speaking of those cast members, Holt has assembled a cast of versatile multi-taskers who contribute more than their singing. Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) award winner Jimmy Curtin enjoys some highly salty solos, like “The Masochism Tango,” and also directs the choreography for “Poisoning Pigeons,” whereas other dance arrangements came from Jodie Bova-Mele. Curtin, known for flamboyant costumes and wigs, shows up here in nothing more provocative than a Confederate soldier’s gray kepi.
Baritone William Edward White, a familiar face at Appleseed, often takes the more macabre numbers, soloing with “Wernher Von Braun” and leading the trio in the Lugosi-esque “I Hold Your Hand in Mine.” He also does triple duty as the show’s producer and lighting designer.
Kathy Egloff, one of the busiest faces in community theater, carries her full share of the singing, mostly notably with a heavy Charro accent for “In Old Mexico.” Between numbers, perhaps gasping for air, she plays flute, piccolo and alto saxophone in the three-person ensemble led by Dan Williams.
She’s not the only musician. Greg J. Hipius also carries his share of the singing, like the anti-nostalgic “My Home Town.” He shows up dressed in a bishop’s costume with miter for “The Vatican Rag,” the single most hilarious number in Tomfoolery, which admittedly could still not be performed on broadcast TV without bringing down the wrath of Bill Donohue and the Catholic League. Musician Dan Williams has to cover the lyrics of “The Old Dope Peddler” to allow people to get in costume for it.
A handful of anachronisms, like suggesting that Japanese products should be cheap or allusions to the old NBC Huntley-Brinkley newscast, do not date this satiric lark. Tomfoolery happily kicks up its heels on a Saturday night. And on Fridays, too.
This production runs through June 30. See Times Table for information.