Tireless satire: For Tomfoolery, don't leave your brain at home

Sometimes the simplest things give us the most pleasure. Tomfoolery isn't a big, complicated show: just four charming performers with a few props and costume changes, accompanied by a pianist and singing the brilliantly savage songs of Tom Lehrer. Written in the 1950s and '60s by the Harvard-educated mathematician, many of these songs retain an amazing amount of humor and relevance, providing those electrifying little sparks of recognition you get when the satiric rapier hits home. The play was put together by Cameron Mackintosh, whose text tells us that Lehrer is now 82 and has stopped writing because "political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize."

There are a lot of inventive rhymes: quickening and strychnine, for instance. Many of the numbers are funny just because they up-end convention. Denver Victorian cast member Henrik Boes sings a pretty love song called "I Hold Your Hand," and it turns out the hand has been severed from its owner by the balladeer. A couple croons about the joy they find in "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park." A lilting Irish ballad details the exploits of a young woman who murdered every member of her family. "Rickety-tickety-tin," trills the chorus after every verse. The Beatles famously asked, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?" but before the question was posed, Lehrer had the answer: "Your teeth will start to go, dear/Your waist will start to spread/In twenty years or so, dear/I'll wish that you were dead."

There are a few duds — the Harvard songs "Oedipus Rex" and "In Old Mexico" didn't do a whole lot for me — and some of the effusions just sound like the burblings of a very clever undergraduate. And in the political songs, some of the specifics are dated. We're not worrying as much about the bomb these days, though I suspect we should be. The old bugaboo of Communism has been replaced by the amorphous concept of terrorism. Not many contemporary Catholics would take offense at "The Vatican Rag" — for one thing, it's too insanely jolly — but I'm hard put to imagine a song praising "The Old Dope Peddler" for the joy he brings our children getting much traction, other than on the furthest reaches of the Internet or cable. Still, you can't argue that the ideas behind "Pollution" have become irrelevant; "We'll All Go Together When We Go" remains hilariously apt; and the song about that old Nazi rocket builder "Wernher von Braun" is downright spooky. I'd love to hear Lehrer's take on gay marriage, Muslim mosques and global warming. (I'm still puzzling over a remark by one reviewer that Lehrer's satire has been eclipsed by the far more powerful stuff we see now: Where is he finding all this good stuff?) At a time when Mad magazine was the height of iconoclasm, Lehrer's achievement was surely monumental.

Each member of the cast — Boes, Clark Bomer Brittain, Amanda Goldrick, Paula Jayne Friedland — brings his or her own particular strengths to the mix, and Midge Moyer is a humorously, engaged accompanist. This is that rare event: a lighthearted good time that doesn't require you to leave your brain at home.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman