Arts

Santa Clara Players Have Fun with Tom Lehrer's Songs in 'Tomfoolery'

The cast of 'Tomfoolery' dress up and act out Tom Lehrer's
humorous songs in this musical revue.
Tomfoolery SONG AND DANCE: The cast of 'Tomfoolery' dress up and act out Tom Lehrer's humorous songs in this musical revue.

In fourth grade, my school's music class learned a song called "Pollution." A twist on the advice given to American travelers to not drink the water in foreign lands, it had a catchy melody, Latin rhythm and smart, biting lyrics with an environmental theme. It even had a local shout-out: "The breakfast garbage you throw in to the Bay, they drink at lunch in San Jose" (I grew up in the North Bay so this was especially funny). It was the most hilarious thing 8-year-old me had ever heard.

Thus I became a fan of Tom Lehrer, the Harvard grad and U.C. Santa Cruz mathematics and music professor who, in the 1950s and '60s, wrote and recorded several albums of humorous musical gems, then quietly left the limelight while continuing his academic career.

There is definite appeal in Lehrer's own recordings, which feature wry punchlines, his distinctive singing voice and brilliant piano playing, but, as my fourth-grade class found out, the songs also have a theatrical quality that lend themselves well to live performance. Tomfoolery, a revue of many of Lehrer's works, was first staged and scripted by Cameron Mackintosh, with Lehrer's blessing, in the 1980s, and is presented anew by The Santa Clara Players.

Tomfoolery includes parodies, demented love songs, kid-friendly educational numbers, and, best of all, socio-political satire. Lehrer's style is something like a cerebral blend of Phil Ochs and Weird Al Yankovic, and he's particularly skilled at crafting sophisticated, clever rhymes.

Highlights include "The Vatican Rag" ("make a cross on your abdomen/when in Rome do like a Roman") and "So Long, Mom," a takeoff on the sprightly, patriotic anthems of the First World War—only written in advance of the impending nuclear holocaust of World War III. Though many of Lehrer's satirical songs have firm roots in their mid-century origins, most remain sharp and relevant today, with only a few that haven't aged as well.

According to director Jon Rosen, this is the first musical the Players have ever attempted in their 50-year history. It's not a first for Rosen however. He's helmed the show many times, including in San Jose in 2006. The concept is simple: a small cast acts out the songs while providing some information and jokes in between. Unlike in some so-called "jukebox musicals," there's no need for an attempted plot.

It's a good choice for the teeny-tiny Santa Clara Players' performance space, requiring little in terms of production values. And make no mistake, this is a low-budget, community-theater production: intimate, unpretentious and heartfelt on the plus side, somewhat uneven in performance quality on the minus side. With a small cast of five, everyone is given plenty of spotlight moments, with mixed results.

One player who shines consistently throughout is Samantha Cori, with powerhouse vocals and the comedic charisma of the young Carol Burnett. Her frenzied, dizzying rendition of "The Elements" (along with likeable Peter Woolhouse) brought the house down, and perhaps should have been saved as an act closer, as it was difficult to follow such a tour de force number. I hope to see much more of her in future local theater productions.

The only set design involved is the inclusion of a small cocktail bar. There are, however, an incredible array of clever prop and costume changes—I think something new for every single song—to give visual complement to Lehrer's lyrics. The show's arrangement, with some songs done as solos and duets and some as group numbers, means that cast members can be constantly dashing on and off stage and returning with some new wacky hat or jacket to set the mood.

Pianist Amanda Ku has the considerable responsibility of musical direction and piano accompaniment—no small task, given that she has Lehrer's own masterful playing to be compared with and piano is by far the dominant instrument, with assistance from Keith Leung on woodwinds.

The Santa Clara Players' energy and comic timing ensure audiences will leave with a grin, and for true Lehrer devotees, several performances are specially designated as sing-alongs. Rosen and his company's commitment to keeping Lehrer's work alive is much appreciated. Tom Lehrer, if you happen to be reading this, I, and my inner fourth-grader, salute you. And, to quote the man himself: "If after hearing these songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, then it will all have been worth the while."

Tomfoolery

Triton Museum Hall Pavilion, Santa Clara

Thru Jun 28, $16-$20


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