Pianist-songwriter-singer-mathematician-lecturer-political satirist Tom Lehrer got an early start racking up all those hyphens — the New York native entered Harvard University as a math major at age 15 and finished his master’s course work four years later. He’d next visit his eccentricities on the Army when it called him up in 1955; he’s named in a litany of orange Jell-O shot inventors who’d found a way to spirit alcohol past the guards (“It was a very nice party,” he’d joke as Christmas came and went).
At 89, Lehrer has forgotten more about social caricature than all of us combined will ever know. Tomfoolery, a 26-song nod to all things tasteless in the public mien, is currently up at North Coast Repertory Theatre — but the uninitiated might note that his tunes date to the Dark Ages, from 1953 to 1965. When Tom came on the scene, Dwight Eisenhower was in the first year of his presidency; by comparison, today’s satire is unfailingly, and exponentially, acidic.
Does that make this a lame or ill-conceived show? Absolutely not. In fact, the nostalgia factor underscores Lehrer as a man well ahead of his time. Add castmates Andrew Barnicle, Sarah Errington, Christine Hewitt and Lance Arthur Smith, and Tomfoolery is a perfectly suited piece of work, even as the current administration turns a blind eye to the truth of it all.
Lehrer had nothing on his day’s legion of disgruntled social critics. Guys like the brooding late Lenny Bruce and the erudite Mort Sahl (who at 90 is still working) were among the country’s more incendiary detractors, eschewing everything from censorship to federal cover-ups.
The difference lies in Lehrer’s acumen as an instrumental performer. Musical theater was his vehicle (he taught it for years at the University of California, Santa Cruz), with his lyrics’ situational qualities to follow.
“We’ll murder them all, with laughter and merriment / Except for the few we take home to experiment,” he gleefully screeds in “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”; “I can tell you things about Peter Pan / And the Wizard of Oz (there’s a dirty old man!),” he warbles in his homage to “Smut.”
And if you don’t know the jaunty The Vatican Rag, you’re either lying or dead: “Ave Maria; gee, it’s good to see ya; / Gettin’ ecstatic an’ sorta dramatic an’ doin’ the Vatican rag!”
Tom Lehrer: ‘I don’t want to satirize George Bush and his puppeteers; I want to vaporize them!’
Weed among the Boy Scouts; boozing your way through college; mysterious contagions passed between friends (tee-hee!): In his 21 albums and compilations, Lehrer was ever the craftsman in his efforts to draw parallels between everyday life and the greater good or ill that reflects it. Among this cast, Barnicle’s the best, unfazed amid the soupçon of lyrics and what they’re designed to invoke. Hewitt, Smith and Errington (the latter absolutely crushed it in Cygnet Theatre Company’s Shockheaded Peter last spring) also fuel helmer Kathy Brombacher’s ensemble vision.
The four are in great voice as they swirl among each other on Marty Burnett’s scene design. The set’s leanness lets Lehrer tell the story from beyond Aaron Rumley’s lights, Eliza Benzoni’s costumes, Ryan Ford’s sound and Tim McKnight’s and Steve Withers’ pianistic aplomb.
Lehrer now spends half the year in a small Santa Cruz apartment, browses campus bookstores and generally enjoys nearly 50 years out of the spotlight. Today’s satire, he’s lamented, speaks in generalities while the real grist lies undisturbed.
“The real issues, I don’t think most people touch,” he once told The Sydney Morning Herald. “The Clinton jokes are all about Monica Lewinsky and all that stuff and not about the important things, like the fact that he wouldn’t ban land mines . . . I don’t want to satirize George Bush and his puppeteers; I want to vaporize them!”
The curious thing about that statement is that it was made in 2003. Lehrer would rather keep to himself than grant an interview these days — but oh, my, the gold he’d mine today behind our ass-hat of a president and our politically bankrupt Congress. Please do see this spirited piece in all its courage of conviction. It’s a cinch you’ll draw the same conclusion.
This review is based on the matinee performance of August 19. Tomfoolery runs through August 27 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. $35-$40. 959-481-1055, northcoastrep.org.