The post-holiday blahs have barely had a chance to sour the city's collective disposition, and Arena Stage, never more efficient, has already come up with an antidote. It's "Tomfoolery," the speedy, spiffy and rather splendid little revue fashioned from 27 songs by Tom Lehrer, which opened last night in the Kreeger Theatre.
Anyone of an age (like middle, for example) may recall Lehrer as Puck's bad boy of the 1950s -- a Harvard teacher who, when he wasn't expounding on mathematics, was turning out spirited ditties at the piano on such topics as nuclear holocaust, bigotry and venereal disease. Back then, much of Lehrer's appeal, if I remember correctly, was that he violated more than a few taboos and poked his merry song-writing talents into areas that were strictly off-limits. To a generation that had just discovered fallout shelters, he crooned, not so reassuringly, that "We'll all fry together when we fry,/ We'll be French fried potatoes by and by." And it seemed audacious.
This, however, is 1982, and we may be less worried about sizzling in a nuclear frying pan than we are about getting mugged while taking out the garbage. What is now surprising -- indeed, winning -- about Lehrer's songs is their antic charm. Perhaps the charm was always there under the iconoclasm that once appeared so bold, but Arena's very classy production certainly brings it to the fore. Lehrer is no Cole Porter, but at Arena you are encouraged to listen to him as if he were. What is being played to the hilt is wit, not gall.
Although three or four of the 27 numbers probably should have been left back in the 1950s, Arena has no trouble bringing the others back to life. To that end, it has marshaled four engaging singers (Terrence Currier, Ellen March, Timothy Jerome, and Eric Weitz) and five tuxedoed musicians and set them loose in a purple and mouse-gray cocktail lounge for a couple of hours. (The set by designer Tom Lynch, with its oval dance floor, covered in maroon linoleum, is just another indication that stylistically, the 1950s are shaping up quite nicely these days.)
The banter that prefaces each song is by Lehrer also, and it, too, has a self-deprecating charm. Never so much as when Jerome informs us dryly that one of Lehrer's goals was "to prolong adolescence beyond all previous limits." While the lyrics tackle a diversity of subjects more or less squalid and macabre, Lehrer's melodies are invariably upbeat. The purposeful gulf between the words and the music runs the length of the show. If you're going to trill the delights of poisoning pigeons in the park, as March and Jerome do early in the night, better that you trill them to a waltz. And, naturally, when the cast takes on the ironies of "National Brotherhood Week" ("Lena Horne and Lester Maddox dancing cheek to cheek"), it is to the zestful do-si-do strains of a country hoedown.
The only moment Lehrer's music is less than gleeful is for "The Old Dope Peddler." Time, however, has played a trick on that one. Such lyrics as "He gives the kids free samples/ Because he knows full well/ That today's young innocent faces/ Will be tomorrow's clientele" are no longer outrageous. The number is inexpressibly sad, and Robert Fisher, the show's deft conductor and pianist, sings it with commendable sobriety.
Otherwise, "Tomfoolery" perks right along, feeding on the good-natured talents of its performers, just as it is fed by them. Weitz, a pint-sized song and dance whiz, is bright of eye and bushy of tail, chirping "So Long Mom (I'm Off to Drop the Bomb)." Currier looks as if he could be a silver-haired high-school principal, which makes his rendition of "The Masochism Tango" an even grander exercise in impropriety. Jerome, one of those performers who can indulge in rampant hypocrisy or suffocating schmaltz without batting a lid, is just right for Lehrer's perverse love songs, and he has the further noteworthy gift, when smiling, of not merely crinkling up his features, but erasing them from his face entirely. As the sole female in the nuthouse, March adds to the proceeedings a touch of Verdon, a dash of Burnett and a horsy zest all her own. She can't do much with "In Old Mexico," perhaps, but her garrulous glee in "Irish Ballad" is touched with a fine madness.
Nice as these four are separately, they are even nicer together. As members of "The Folk Song Army," that lamebrained contingent that once stood up bravely for peace and harmony (as if everyone else were sitting down), they make an inspired collection of dunces. And in an unexpected change of pace, "The Silent E," a song Lehrer wrote for the Electric Company, the four constitute a virtual chorus line, demonstrating how good old silent E can make a can into a cane, a tub into a tube.
"Tomfoolery" does nothing in a big way. Its effects are tidy and well-chiseled. But when in the course of "Silent E," four top hats drop from the skies, only to be snapped out of the air by the cast members acting in unison, the effect is as impressive in my book as the chariots in "Ben-Hur." Behind such apparent simplicity, however, lies the expertise of many: Geoffrey Ferris, who has choreographed the evening with modest aplomb; director Doug Wager, who has honed the performers' attitudes to pin-like sharpness; Allen Lee Hughes, who has lit the falderal with panache; not to overlook Cameron Mackintosh, the Britisher who conceived the whole shebang in the first place.
Most of today's nonsense is purely accidental or so juvenile as to depress. "Tomfoolery" is willful from start to finish. And jim-dandy just about every step of the way.
TOMFOOLERY. By Tom Lehrer; adapted by Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray; directed by Douglas Wager; staging and choreography, Geoffrey Ferris; musical direction, Robert Fisher; arrangements, Chris Walker; set, Tom Lynch; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes. With Terrence Currier, Timothy Jerome, Ellen March, Eric Weitz. At Arena's Kreeger Theatre.