Theater

BACK TO THE FOLKIE

Singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer, an enemy of sentimentality in all its forms, built an interesting career thrashing middle-class pretensions and undermining "good taste" wherever it reared its ugly head. His black, satirical songs scorched many a prejudice and failing in American society during the Fifties and Sixties, and while some of the material is a tad dated, most of it is as relevant as ever.

Tomfoolery, now at the Denver Civic Theater, softens some of Lehrer's sharper edges, but manages, nevertheless, to bring back the outrageous naughtiness of his enduringly adolescent humor as well as the genuine intelligence of his satire. In director Kirby Lewellen's hands, the revue is brash, energetic, occasionally embarrassing and intermittently hilarious.

Lewellen takes a bright, cheerful approach to most of the songs--a departure from Lehrer's own leering, cynical tone. And very often the musical-revue renditions work better than the originals. "My Home Town," for example, satirized nostalgia and reveled in exposing the nasty underside of small-town life--yet it's greatly improved by the nostalgic atmosphere Lewellen builds with his cast. Brad George as a homesick barkeep fondly remembers his hometown, creating the veritable image of another Peyton Place.

Similarly, "The Masochism Tango" is much improved by Jeff Betsch's surefooted portrayal of both pain and passion. And the masterpiece of the show, "The Vatican Rag," which skewers organized religion, is all the funnier with the entire cast (including the guys) outfitted as nuns.

The transitions that Lewellen has inserted are often awkward, as self-conscious actors step out simultaneously to praise and to introduce the next song. And some of the songs really do need Lehrer's sarcasm to work: "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie," a parody of Fifties-style racial bigotry, simply loses something as a revue song. And "I Hold Your Hand in Mine," a satire of sentimental love songs, begs for a screwier, more ironic delivery. Still, the company delivers "The Irish Ballad"--about a woman who murders every member of her family--with so much wit and finesse, the song will never sound the same again.

Nothing social or political was off-limits to the acerbic Lehrer. He was a grating presence in the repressive Fifties--and four decades later, it's great fun to hear those scratchy sentiments once again.

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