TOMFOOLERY (Act II): Rediscovering the satire of Tom Lehrer

Excerpted by kind permission from Neals Paper


Patrick Romano, Tracie Higgins, Jamison Foreman, and Tony Braithwaite star in “TomFoolery,” a revue of Tom Lehrer songs, on stage at Act II Playhouse in Ambler until April 2. Photo by Bill D’Agostino.

Tom Lehrer is the smartest, most devilish, most perceptive, and most funny of the editorial songwriters. His work may be 50-years-old, but he gives Seth McFarlane, Matt Groening, and Parker and Stone a run for their money. His work for NBC’s “That Was the Week That Was” in the mid-60s was reason alone to watch the program. Lehrer tackled subjects that remain ripe for discussion today, such as pollution, nuclear armament, racial and ethnic relationships, and good old devolving love.

Lehrer turns age 89 on April 9, and his work lives on. Possibly only in some ancient memories but enough to generate a revue of his material by no less than Cameron Mackintosh with Robin Ray and to stimulate a production directed by and starring Tony Braithwaite at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse.

Braithwaite’s production is a brisk 75 minutes, well maybe 80, and it covers a lot Lehrer’s prolific satirical oeuvre, including his ballad mocking rocket scientist Werner van Braun, his appeal to tolerance, “National Brotherhood Week,” and his deliciously irreverent “Vatican Rag.”

Even with the variety, there were a few Lehrer tune I hankered to hear that “Tomfoolery” kept from me, such as his hilarious “Send in the Marines,” and his nasty riff on all traditional folk songs by use of an Irish Folk Song, perfect for St. Patrick’s Day, “Rickety-Tickety-Tin.”

Tony Braithwaite is the perfect person to present Tom Lehrer. Their styles are similar, friendly but acid and quick as Tornado, Zorro’s horse. Braithwaite played the role of raconteur, introducing Lehrer to an audience that might not know him as well as I, and reveling in the larky, pointed tunes in which Lehrer specialized.

Tracie Higgins also acquitted herself well. Jamison Foreman turns out to be a multiple-threat, spiritedly playing the piano, which was Lehrer’s instrument, and also singing and dancing well. Of all the cast, Patrick Romano seemed to convey the most venom as he sang.

The Act II cast, though good at presenting songs and finding the obvious comedy, usually missed the bite in the pieces. The most brittlely naughty passages seemed to arise when Lehrer was heard on tape introducing some of his pieces, as he did in the concerts he performed into the early ’70s. (In his non-performing life, he was a mathematics professor at MIY and Stanford.)

As I saw in both Forbidden Broadway and Kiss Me Kate at Act II, there was a failure to go beyond the surface of some tunes, to find the meanness Lehrer bragged of, and bring it forward.. A cast doesn’t have to do much with “The Vatican Rag,” Its humor and triple rhymes — processional/confessional, religion he’ll, original — serve their own purpose. It’s the subtler tunes, the ironic love songs that promise indifference when one is old and gray, or the songs that make the respectable blush that need more behind amusing but incomplete staging.

I noticed some of the songs were doctored, and I couldn’t figure out why, It makes sense to replace the forgotten Sheriff Clarke and the late Lena Horne (my almost anagram) with an updated Oprah Winfrey and Steve Bannon, but why change “The breakfast garbage you throw into the bay, they drink for lunch in San Jose” in “Pollution?” Do the creators think its audience won’t know where San Jose is or its relationship to San Francisco

Parris Bradley’s set was simple in concept, six-foot tall read letters spelling Tomfoolery, but the cast made good use of the letters’ height as hiding places and openings in “o’s” and “e’s” for windows. The “e” also served a great purpose in a number Lehrer wrote to show how an added silent “e” changes a word, as in “hop” and “hope,” Sonny Leo contributed the lively dance to “The Vatican Rag,”

Did I have a good time? Yes. Would I recommend this show? Yes. But I have to admit I did warble some of the numbers in the car going home so I could hear them as I like them. Read more at NealsPaper >>>

[Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue,  Ambler, Pa.] February 28-April 2, 2017;

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About the author

Neal Zoren for NealsPaper

Neal of the Nealspaper is a fan of all forms of live entertainment, movies, and television. He is also a constant reader and a frequent traveler. He writes for, a place for people to come to read one authoritative voice in the dialogue, and find out what might be worthwhile — or not — as you plan your entertainment outings.