Different Drummer Music Theatre

at Urbus Orbis

If Tom Lehrer hadn’t existed we would have had to invent him. The songs he wrote and sang in the 1950s and early 60s were just what was needed: tart, witty musical antidotes to the apple-pie sanctimoniousness of the time. With a wry, nasal vocal style that combined traces of Al Jolson and Groucho Marx, and a talent for trick rhymes that echoed William S. Gilbert and Lorenz Hart and anticipated Stephen Sondheim, Lehrer produced a collection of blithely bizarre ballads that skewered American society as it headed into its period of social and cultural convulsion in the 25 years after World War II. If William S. Burroughs was the visionary poet-journalist of this age of nuclear anxiety and psychosexual upheaval, Lehrer was its satirist-songwriter.

His theme was upwardly mobile America’s effort to stifle or hide its baser instincts–its lust for sex and violence, its capacity for intolerance and inhumanity–and his darts were aimed at the squares and the hipsters alike. After deflating the conservatives’ Norman Rockwell image of small-town American innocence in such diabolical ditties as “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” “The Old Dope Peddler,” and “My Home Town,” he would take aim at liberal idealism. “We Will All Go Together When We Go” mocked the antinuke movement by embracing worldwide nuclear holocaust as the ultimate uniting of humankind; “National Brotherhood Week” exposed the underlying hypocrisy of pluralistic platitudes; “Smut” knocked down the civil-libertarian free-speech defense of pornography and instead reveled in porn’s inherent dirty-mindedness and repressiveness. Interestingly, when Lehrer faded from public view in the mid-1960s, it seemed a retreat in the face of society’s increasing permissiveness regarding speech and behavior; without repression, Lehrer seemed to lose his motivation.

Now in his 60s, comfortably pursuing his other career as a mathematics professor, Lehrer hasn’t written new songs in years. But his best work from 25 to 35 years ago is on display in the revue Tomfoolery, playing weekends in the tiny back-room theater of the Urbus Orbis coffeehouse in Wicker Park. Given the distinctively American tone of Lehrer’s burlesque-influenced music, it’s ironic that Tomfoolery was originally produced in England: premiered in London in June 1980, it was the brainchild of producer-writer Cameron Mackintosh (more recently producer of Les Miserables) and actor-writer Robin Ray; and its original director was Gillian Lynne, later choreographer of Cats. Tomfoolery’s American premiere in New York in 1981 featured former Chicago actor Donald Corren (aka Cosmo White); a couple of years later, it received a brief run here at the Apollo Theater.

The current production, at the hands of the itinerant Different Drummer Music Theatre, is a stripped-down version of the original two-act show; it packs into one very brisk hour 18 songs plus a smattering of spoken commentary, mostly adapted from Lehrer’s own concert patter.

Maybe because the rigid repressiveness of the McCarthy era gave Lehrer his strongest inspiration, the best songs in Tomfoolery are the oldest. In the genial “My Home Town,” the singer waxes nostalgic for the prostitutes, perverts, and pyromaniacs of his boyhood. “Be Prepared” airs every dirty implication in the Boy Scouts’ sacred slogan; the Different Drummer cast delivers the tune with a flourish of condoms, proving, I suppose, that everything old is new again. “The Irish Ballad” is a gleefully gruesome pseudo-folk song in which Lehrer lampoons advocates of “authentic” folk music. “In Old Mexico” deflates the Hemingway-esque aggrandizement of the bloody game of bullfighting into art, while “I Hold Your Hand in Mine” and “The Masochism Tango” are passionate odes to necrophilia and sadomasochism. Even where the passage of time has eroded the shock value these “sick comedy” specialty numbers once had, Lehrer’s witty rhyming keeps the songs fresh and funny.

Somewhat less successful are the later, more overtly political pieces; there, the passage of time has undermined the familiarity that made the songs work originally. “The Vatican Rag,” Lehrer’s vaudevillian spoof of the Catholic Church’s liberal reforms in the 1960s, now seems pale and weak set against the current pope’s right-wing retrenchment; “George Murphy,” about the former movie actor who became a U.S. senator, similarly pales in light of another Hollywood hack’s election to even higher office. In any case, Lehrer’s political songs never had the bite that his earlier songs did; the specificity required for political satire seemed to limit his off-kilter imagination.

Director Jimmy Bickerstaff and choreographer Kathy Maltese have staged Tomfoolery cleverly on the tiny Urbus Orbis stage, and music directors Scott Zacher and J. Kawarsky have coached the show’s four singer-actors well. The performers have strong and distinctive voices, but their acting left this viewer only partly satisfied. Lynn Fisher, the cast’s only woman, is an extremely gifted comedienne who parades through a series of outlandish costumes and characterizations–a gap-toothed, potato-peeling Irish balladeer, a garishly made-up Akron housewife, a whip-wielding tango dancer, a sweet, pigeon-poisoning little old lady–with the no-holds-barred conviction of Lucille Ball at her best. The men–Logan Bazar, Marty Higginbotham, and Tom Viveiros–are less successful, though only Bazar, with his smug musical-comedy mannerisms, is really bad. The problem is that the guys seem to be pretending to believe the weirdness Lehrer’s songs express; Fisher, on the other hand, seems to be living it.

There are a few halfhearted attempts to update the material–references to Bush and Quayle, Noriega, even Ann Gerber and Oprah Winfrey. But at its best–like Lehrer at his best–Tomfoolery embodies a comic brilliance whose very eccentricity guarantees its timelessness.


Different Drummer Music Theatre

at the Roxy

Like Tomfoolery, Different Drummer’s That Jazz packs some 20 tunes into a fast-moving hour. But the songs in That Jazz promote an ebullient romanticism at the opposite end of the spectrum from Lehrer’s cutting comic sensibility. Maybe it’s easier to sell sarcasm than sincerity; That Jazz suffers from a lack of focus and an overabundance of cuteness.

The setting is a speakeasy in Chicago near the end of the depression; the plot, slim as it is, concerns the romantic and financial ups and downs of two young couples and a single, somewhat older woman. But all that the premise and the characters add up to is an excuse to rummage through the glorious songs of the 1920s and ’30s.

The repertoire focuses on readily recognizable selections: “I Got Rhythm,” “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “You’re the Top,” “Carolina in the Morning,” “California, Here I Come,” “We’re in the Money,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “The Sunny Side of the Street,” “Happy Days Are Here Again.” These and other tunes are delivered with a pleasantly casual charm but not much distinction. The performers possess good, strong voices–Irish tenor Rob Dorn sounds particularly good–but they lack any real feel for the period.

In a venue as intimate as the Roxy nightclub, and in a format as slight as the one conceived for That Jazz by director Nathan Hurwitz and music director Scott Zacher, every detail of vocal and physical inflection counts; the movement here is imprecise and the singing inauthentic, so we are never transported into the world suggested by the old songs. There is the germ of a fuller, more interesting show here, but it’s too undeveloped at this point to distinguish That Jazz from any of the numerous jazz-age revues that have popped up in the last decade.

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