By Ellen Wilson Dilks
Ambler’s Act II Playhouse has dug deep (all the way back to the 1960s) to revive the very funny—and still timely—“Tomfoolery” by Tom Lehrer. Directed by Artistic Director Tony Braithwaite, the production runs now through April 2, 2017 at the Playhouse’s Butler Pike venue.
Any hippie worth their salt remembers at least one of Tom Lehrer’s ditties. A Harvard-educated math professor, Lehrer entertained and delighted millions of fans during the 1950s and 1960s with his witty, satirical songs. His albums sold millions, despite being initially self-produced. Lehrer also contributed songs to the acclaimed Children’s Television Workshop show, Electric Company (Silent “e”and “ly”). Interestingly, at the height of his success, Lehrer abruptly retired from performing, choosing to concentrate on his teaching career vs. fame; stating that he quit because, “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.” Lehrer will turn 89 years old this year; he lives quietly in Boston.
The revue features 28 of the author’s satirical songs that were written in the 1950s and 1960s and were known for their “witty naughtiness.” Lehrer really knows how to turn a phrase, and he’s an equal opportunity offender—nothing is sacred in “Tomfoolery.” Some of the songs in this highly entertaining revue include Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, The Masochism Tango and a rapid-fire recitation of the Periodic Table of Elements. The one I remember (as a Catholic kid who hated the restrictions of my schools) is the hilarious The Vatican Rag. Every song is full of very clever wordplay. (Hamilton owes Lehrer a bit of a debt.) Like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lehrer provides both the music and the lyrics.
Adapted by Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray (with musical arrangements by Robert Fisher and Chris Walker), “Tomfoolery” stars Artistic Director Tony Braithwaite, Jamison Foreman, Tracie Higgins (“Electile Dysfunction”, “Forbidden Broadway”, “Lend Me a Tenor”), and Patrick Romano (“Broadway on Butler”). Braithwaite did stand-up comedy early in his career, so he’s bringing that panache to the stage, adding lovely details throughout. Braithwaite also directs the production and he’s done a great job of pulling the best out of his three co-stars. On the distaff side, Higgins is adorable. Not only does she have a fine singing voice, she’s also a very funny lady. Patrick Romano (also seen in “Electile Dysfunction”) is a solid presence, belting out his songs with great verve—and his voice is wonderful. Jamison Foreman is multi-talented; in addition to his great singing, he provides piano accompaniment. And, boy, can he play.
The technical elements are top-notch. Braithwaite’s direction is crisp, adding great little comedic touches while letting the songs speak for themselves. He states in the theatre’s press release “I love sharp lyrics and good rhymes, and Tom Lehrer is a master at that.” He continues, “He’s sort of the subversive Cole Porter.” Even if you don’t know Lehrer or the songs, you will enjoy the show, Braithwaite added. “Tom satirizes everything we hold dear.”
Braithwaite added, “Since becoming Artistic Director here in Ambler, “Tomfoolery” has been one of the top five shows people have suggested to me that we should do. I’m thrilled to finally present it.”
A simple set of giant cutout letters spelling Tomfoolery in bright red catch your eye the moment you enter the house. Above these is a string of large-sized piano keys; they are cut irregularly and hung kind of helter-skelter. It’s the perfect setting for this production—Parris Bradley has nailed it. James Leitner lights everything, creating just the right mood. Jillian Keys’ costumes are simple yet colorful, although I think I’d go for an ever-so slightly larger suit jacket for Mr. Romano.
Sonny Leo has created some high-spirited choreography that the company executes perfectly. Additional sound—including recordings of Lehrer from the 1960s—has been done by John Stovicek. All of it pops and often puts the perfect “button” on the various songs. Add Lauren Davenport’s clever props and you have a laugh-filled production well worth driving to Ambler for.
If You Go: The production runs now through April 2, with performances Tuesdays through Sunday afternoons. Act II Playhouse is located at 56 E. Butler Avenue in Ambler, PA 19002. For additional information—or to order tickets—patrons can visit www.act2.org or call 215-654-0200