Tomfoolery

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Published: 14th September, 2018

We have two reviews of Tomfoolery for you, the first by  Jon Jackson, written on  September 132018…

It has been quite a long time since I have seen or heard a performance of Tom Lehrer’s satirical works. During the 1950s and 60s, Lehrer wrote and performed songs which challenged the way society saw itself and ushered in a new era of comic commentary. In their day, the songs provoked outrage from those they lampooned, and although many years have passed, they remain mostly relevant today. Some pieces sound a little out of date, but most appear surprisingly prescient in today’s era of fake news, political corruption, climate change and terrorism.

This production is a lot of fun whether you are familiar with Lehrer’s work or not. I spoke to some younger audience members who had never heard the songs before. They were truly surprised how long ago the songs were written. And I suspect how little the world has changed since. Tomfoolery was originally created by a young Cameron Mackintosh in 1980 and has played regularly around the world ever since. Lehrer was a great wit and was renowned for such quotes as “I know that there are people who do not love their fellow man. I hate people like that!”

The show is presented very much in Tom Lehrer’s own self-effacing style, which led one 1960s critic to write, “Mr Lehrer’s muse is unfettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.” The man himself is represented in the cast as a skeleton mounted on a mobile stand, complete with his ubiquitous black horn rimmed glasses; which incidentally are worn by all four other human members of the cast. It’s a terrific ensemble of music theatre veterans, all having a great time with this material. Star of the musical and cabaret stage, Susan-Ann Walker leads the cast with her magnetic stage presence and brilliant vocals; especially in her wonderful version of “The Masochism Tango”. She also shows off her considerable musicianship as she plays piano, ukulele, accordion and an array of percussion instruments. I just know that fans will love the sweet rendition of “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”. Narrating on piano and vocals is another stalwart of the Australian musical stage, Peter Hurley. He is perfectly cast here with his crisp diction and arch delivery in numbers such as “I got it from Agnes” and “The Old Dope Peddler”.

Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without Lehrer’s infamous signature tune, “The Elements”. It’s simply a list of all the chemical elements, sung to the tune of the Major-General’s song from Gilbert & Sullivan’sThe Pirates of Penzance. It requires very strong memory and lung power from the singer and it’s done beautifully by Sean Weatherly. Sean has performed Tomfoolery before at the 2008 Adelaide Fringe and is the producer of this season. The cast is rounded out with cabaret star Michael Dalton. Best known as drag comedienne, Dolly Diamond, here he uses his comedic talents on Lehrer’s macabre love ballad, “She’s My Girl” and the less-than-wholesome,”My Home Town”.

All the numbers are thoughtfully choreographed and the staging is refreshingly smooth and well-paced in the 60 minute running time.  The hand of director Theresa Borg is evident here and it’s reminiscent of her fine work on recent surprise Melbourne stage hit, “Puffs”. This ensemble gels beautifully and the works of Tom Lehrer are well-served in this very welcome and timely production.

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Editor’s note: Our second reviewer Julie Houghton hadn’t planned on fooling around with Tom ( as her title to this review put it) despite, or perhaps because her old thespian friend ( and fellow-writer for Classic Melbourne), Peter Hurley plays such an important part in the show). But she was charmed  … so here’s her (unedited) opinion….

There are two groups of people who should see Tomfoolery– the words and music of Tom Lehrer – those who know and love the work of this master wit, and those who have no idea who he is.

People who love Lehrer will be impressed by director Theresa Borg’s current production of the show, and Lehrer newbies are in for a treat as they discover the catchy tunes and irreverent wit of this American maths professor who was in vogue in the 1950s and 60s. The show is the brainchild of one Cameron Mackintosh, who opened the first season of Tomfoolery in London in 1980.

Like all good satire, Lehrer’s work is as current and fresh today as it was then, and performers Peter Hurley, Susan-ann Walker, Michael Dalton and Sean Weatherly make an impressive quartet who bring every song to life.

While on opening night there were occasional pitch and lyric hitches, the skill of the performers shone through, creating a magical celebration of all things Lehrer.

The quartet obviously enjoys working together, and Borg has directed a tight show where the pace never flags.

Highlights included Hurley’s hilarious “I Got It From Agnes” and “The Irish Ballad”, featuring a droll performance from Walker. These two performers shared the musical honours with Hurley doing the lion’s share of the accompanying with Walker occasionally taking over the keys or contributing on the ukelele!

Tomfoolery got off to a cracking start with an energetic and polished opening number “Be Prepared” and finished on a high with the appropriate “We Will All Go Together When We Go”.

And that’s what everyone should do – go to Tomfoolery xxxxfor a fine night of cabaret satire from the master.

But be quick – Tomfoolery has a short season until 22 September at Gasworks Arts Park, 21 Graham St Albert Park