theatre review

by Tom Lehrer
Jericho Arts Centre
1675 Discovery
December 13-14

The following review was written back in October when this production first opened at the Waterfront Theatre:

I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s when Tom Lehrer was at the height of his popularity. But I have to admit that he never appeared at all on my personal radar screen. A Harvard-educated math professor turned professional humourist, Lehrer became known for his irreverent, satirical songs (isn’t all satire by definition irreverent?), skewering everything from boy scouts and the Catholic church to folk singers and the US Marines. “If after hearing my songs,” he once said, “just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps strike a loved one, it will all have been worthwhile.”

In this Equity co-op, four actor-singers and a pianist perform 30 Lehrer songs on a bare stage with four stools. “Every possible expense was clearly spared,” we’re told. The songs are genuinely witty, but what might have been considered outrageous satire then, like “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” or “The Masochism Tango,” seems pretty tame now: “Let our love be a flame/Not an ember,/Say it’s me that you want/To dismember.” Lehrer is particularly fond of using shocking images of dismemberment and familiar musical forms like tango, waltz, calypso and especially ballad to frame ironic reversals of sentimental clichés: “My Home Town,” full of slashers and perverts, or the gentle, smiling “Old Dope Peddler.” Many of the targets are familiar: pollution (“you can breathe just as long as you don’t inhale”), Mexican vacations (“We ate and drank and we were merry,/We got typhoid and dysentery”).

One of his pet subjects, the spectre of atomic annihilation, both dates the show and provides some if its most effective contemporary resonance. A song about nuclear proliferation could have been titled “Weapons of Mass Destruction”: “First we got the bomb/And that’s good,/Cause we love peace/And motherhood.” “Send in the Marines” shows how little has changed in half a century: “They’ve got to be protected/And all their rights respected/Until somebody we like/Can be elected." Though not primarily political, Lehrer’s satire can be brutal when he gets someone in his sights like the head of the American space program: “Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown,/’Nazi, shmazi,’ says Werner von Braun.”

The singing and comic acting are fine, but as so often this season the women in this show trump the men. Steve Maddock was limping and Damon Calderwood seemed hoarse on opening night so maybe their energy was a little low, but Susan Anderson and Jayme Armstrong shone. Armstrong is particularly effective with her expressive face and clear soprano voice that can range from operatic to cartoonish. Musical director Gordon Roberts on piano contributes a couple of songs himself and Valerie Easton’s lively direction keeps the show watchable.

But be warned: this is gentle satire with attitudes towards taboo subjects (“smut” perhaps most obviously) that have long since become mainstream. For a clear sense of where we are now on the satire scale, see the movie Team America. But see it after Tomfoolery, not before, lest Lehrer’s world be made to seem mere quaint nostalgia.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Tuesday, December 28, 2004 8:22 PM
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