at Sam’s Saloon and Speakeasy

The spirit of Tom Lehrer hangs over this effort at cabaret musical comedy, but not the wit. Lehrer’s songs–cynical and sarcastic, Tin Pan Alley style black humor, as if Lenny Bruce teamed up with Lerner and Loewe–were welcome assaults on the bland conformism of their day, the prepsychedelic early 1960s; we could use some of that biting comedy in the yuppified 80s, and David Whitehouse and Andy Miller, whose songs form the spine of this brief show, seem willing to oblige. But the jokes are limp, the music undistinguished, and the framework in which the songs are presented hardly worth an audience’s time.

The plot, such as it is, tells of Winslow Hammersfell, a young commodities trader who, one day in October 1987, goes “pork belly up” (in the words of one of the script’s rare funny lines). The impact of last year’s market crash is exacerbated by Winslow’s involvement in an insider-trading scam–all of which, it seems, Winslow was lured into by his scheming, conspicuously consuming wife and her crooked lover. His life in ruins, Winslow goes off in search of work and finds, yes folks, America: an America populated by cute homeless alcoholics, earnest but unemployed middle-class parents, rabble-rousing young punk anarchists, and corrupt preacher-politicians (“Leave Uptown to the downtrodden,” spouts one streetwise demagogue in a timely reference to the Tribune’s series on antidevelopment activists). Winslow’s Candide-like odyssey leads to a final encounter with “The Spirit of the American Dream,” a tarted-up angel who advises that nothing matters anyway because, she sings, “A tisket, a tasket / We all end up in a casket.” Heavy, man.

The script, a collection of deliberately dumb gags strung together as loosely as possible (what plot there is falls by the wayside midway through the second act), is mostly just a hook on which to hang Whitehouse and Miller’s songs, a collection of numbers spoofing various aspects of the yuppie life-style. (Even “Crazy About You,” a gentle ode to parenthood by a happy young father, contains a rhyme about giving up Haagen-Dazs in favor of Lamaze.) Composer Whitehouse, who also plays piano, appropriates from a diverse range of styles–musical comedy, blues, Bach chorales, even a Brahmsian lullaby–but his compositional versatility is obscured by the insistent unmusicality of the actors’ raucous, tuneless singing. This in turn is matched by their klutzy dancing and general overeager amateurishness (David Presby with his kitschy mugging as Winslow is the worst offender in this regard). Indeed, except for Whitehouse’s energetic piano playing (though due to space restrictions he’s unfortunately seated off stage), amateurishness seems to be the guiding aesthetic behind the whole project–like a summer-camp counselors’ skit night, only at ten bucks a ticket. Now that’s a scam.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Larry Zambello.