It’s far less likely that you know Tom Lehrer from giddy firsthand experience than from the sound of his antic voice and piano coming at you from a trusty and hardworking 12-inch 33 1/3 rpm LP record.
But if even that particular combination of numbers, letters and dimensions means nothing to you, then we may have officially arrived at a historical moment when the simple pleasures of goofball novelty songs and college-boy humor passing as mass entertainment may finally have had their day.
Still, welcome anyway the wry remembrances that fill “Tomfoolery,” Swift Creek Mill Theatre’s staging of the 1980 musical revue that celebrates the dark humor and acid wit of Lehrer, a music and math prodigy who landed at Harvard as a 15-year-old and almost immediately began writing and belting out winning ditties for his undergraduate buddies.
Sticking to an unnecessarily complicated and stagey structure conceived by British producer Cameron Mackintosh, Swift Creek’s “Tomfoolery” allows four talented actor-singers (Richard Koch, Bryan Harris, Debra Wagoner and PJ Llewellyn) to take us on a grand tour of Lehrer’s punchy postwar oeuvre.
The baseline of “Tomfoolery” is pure, unadulterated Tom: more than two-dozen samples of the songs that made the songwriter the toast of Harvard by the early 1950s and eventually propelled him to international notoriety that only began to dim in the early 1970s when he chose to step out of the limelight.
And if there were ever any doubt about the mysterious link between math and music, Lehrer’s canon lays that dispute to rest.
Like a boy at his piano lesson with one eye always on the metronome, Lehrer drew upon every tempo and time signature of the pop music of his day, from the tunes of Cole Porter and George Gershwin to the dreamy waltz rhythms of romantic wartime ballads to the nonsense tunes of Spike Jones and the City Slickers. Even Gilbert and Sullivan get retooled and appropriated in Lehrer’s hilarious rendition of “The Elements,” a speed-demon recitation of the periodic table.
Affectionate early samplers, such as “Bright College Days” and “Fight Fiercely, Harvard,” seem to bear the mark of raffish college a cappella groups. But what wellsprings can be credited for allowing “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” or “I Got It From Agnes,” a bawdy paean to sexually transmitted diseases, to pour forth from such a brain?
With Joe Doran’s evenhanded lighting and a pastel-and-primary-colored set by Tom Width that matches many of Maura Lynch Cravey’s excellent costume designs, “Tomfoolery” works overtime supplying both comedy and context to Lehrer’s work. Sharing the singing and choreography equally, the actors also provide interstitial narrative that helps us chart the arc of the artist’s songbook through the years from jokey satire to more deeply felt social commentary.
But even in theater, less is often more, and “Tomfoolery’s” earnest staging and attention to detail eventually begin to dampen the sense of outlandishness and frivolity that marked Lehrer’s particular voice and personality.
Like the busking musicians or sidewalk purveyors of magic (and occasional a cappella groups) that have always populated Harvard Square, unexpected talents like Lehrer charm and beguile first by exceeding expectations. But rendered here by multiple actors and a professional theater with an abundance of technical resources, “Tomfoolery” touches upon too many genres, scatters the humor, and ironically robs us of the chance to focus intently on the raw presence, personality and voice of a lone artist who only comes along once in a great long while.
Marching to its finale with full renditions of “The Masochism Tango” and “The Vatican Rag,” two of Lehrer’s best known songs, “Tomfoolery” does step inadvertently into comic gold when the spotlight comes to rest on music director and keyboardist Paul Deiss, who delivers a winning solo performance of “The Old Dope Peddler” complete with substance-suggestive nasal-sniffling.
Just for a moment, with his smirking sound effects and goggle-eyed glasses, Deiss gives us the Tom Lehrer we’ve been waiting for: just a kid with a bow tie and a piano, coming at us crosswise and always leaving us wanting more.