By Tom Wachunas
“I know that there are people who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that.”
-Tom Lehrer –
Right out of the gate, you know you’re in for a raucous ride in the current production of Tomfoolery, at Canton’s Kathleen Howland Theater, when at the beginning, cast member Tom Bryant refers to that most sainted of American clubs, the Boy Scouts, as “…those bastards of decency.” He was talking to the audience about the first of the show’s 26 songs, this one called, ironically enough, Be Prepared.
What follows is an unapologetic tune about dubious Boy Scout behavior, and in effect a thorough lampooning of social hypocrisy and human malfeasance that runs rampant through the remainder of the evening’s songs. Welcome to the skewed, cynical world of famed satirist and songwriter Tom Lehrer, who entertained millions during the 1950s and 60s with his wickedly sardonic views on everything from nuclear war, pollution and racism, to porno and a bevy of other societal foibles and failures.
Tomfoolery (off-Broadway premiere in 1981) is a revue that features Lehrer’s words and music, adapted for stage by Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray, with musical arrangements by Chris Walker and Robert Fisher. Here, director Scott Bernhardt, joined by musical director/pianist Tim Shilling, has assembled a remarkably exuberant and gifted cast of four – Kerry Bush, Tom Bryant, Shane Daniels, and Jeremy Gilpatric – who put on a mightily entertaining show that convincingly brings all the irreverent wit and infectious buffoonery of Leher’s lyrics to life.
This is a fast-paced show wherein each song is introduced by a cast member. Though the peppery, pun-filled banter in these introductions was authored by Lehrer (with several humorously updated insertions, such as Canton’s Mayor Healy acquiring a nuclear device in the song, Who’s Next), the performers for the most part deliver the material as if they own it, with an easygoing, conversational gusto. The same can generally be said of their singing, particularly in their tight ensemble harmonies.
Clearly, though, in both acting and singing, the most nuanced performer here is Kerry Bush, who alters her characterizations and tonalities with astonishing flexibility. She can be all smiley and sweet like a young Betty White, a sultry cabaret vamp, or a tight-jawed dominatrix, to name just some of her incarnations here. And nowhere is her performing prowess more riveting than when she puts on a scarily real Irish brogue, along with hilarious facial contortions, and sings the show-stopping dark tale, The Irish Ballad.
Other high points? Too many to list, actually. Here, though, are some: a cavalier Tom Bryant portraying an inept hunter in The Hunting Song; Shane Daniels in the murderously (in every sense of the word) funny I Hold Your Hand In Mine; Jeremy Gilpatric expertly enunciating the famously tongue-twisting The Elements and New Math. And speaking of tongue-twisters, musical director Shilling, who provided the masterfully crisp and lively piano accompaniment throughout, is himself a vocal delight as he plays at breakneck speed, and sings in thick Russian accent, Lobachevsky, recalling Danny Kaye in his prime. Surprising, too, is the moment when director Bernhardt takes the stage to sing The Old Dope Peddler, evoking perhaps (and befitting the jarring lyrics) the image of a devilish Captain Kangaroo reminiscing to a group of kids.
There’s a distinctly old-timey aura around this production, largely due to the musical stylings that give it the feel of nostalgic frat-boy sing-alongs, barbershop quartets, or Gilbert and Sullivan-type romps. Such flavorings might make the proceedings seem somehow innocent and dated. But this only adds to their enduring relevance…and irony. We’re still dealing with the absurdities and atrocities that Lehrer parodied more than half a century ago. While it’s true that the show is certainly not to be regarded as a pulpit for moralizing about our sociopolitical disasters, I think the nature of its satire is far more than merely a prompt to laugh at ourselves.
You decide. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this thought from Carl Sandburg: “Back of every mistaken venture and defeat is the laughter of wisdom, if you listen.”
Tomfoolery at The Kathleen Howland Theatre, 324 Cleveland Ave. NW, downtown Canton. Shows are Friday, August 10 and Saturday, August 11 at 8 p.m., and Sunday August 12 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. Discount for Seniors and Military. Call (330) 451 – 0924, or visit www.secondapril.org
PHOTO: Tomfoolery cast: Kerry Bush, Shane Daniels, Jeremy Gilpatric, and Tom Bryant (standing)