Tomfoolery | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Tomfoolery 

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Close Call Theatre, at Red Bones Theatre.

Created in 1980 by Robin Ray and British producer Cameron Mackintosh, this cleverly arranged, wittily scripted revue of Tom Lehrer songs sometimes shows its age. Lehrer is quoted as saying that political satire became redundant when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize; his topical songs seem a little redundant themselves with references to a Cold War, pre-Camp David, pre-AIDS world ("I Got It From Agnes," a spoof on VD, just isn't as funny when the stakes are life and death).

But Lehrer's apolitical, playfully warped spoofs such as "The Masochism Tango" and "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" (an ode to necrophilia) are timeless, if weird, and his skillful rhymes and puns are as clever as ever. And though much of the humor in his records from the 1950s and 60s derives from the singer-songwriter's inimitably snide, nasally mocking tenor, the ingratiating young cast of Close Call Theatre's Tomfoolery proves that the material is funny enough to support a different approach. In tunes like "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," "My Home Town," and "The Old Dope Peddler," which affect a nostalgia for an innocent America that just happens to be populated by psychos, pushers, and perverts, the four actors mine plenty of comedy from the contrast between their fresh, sincere singing styles and the sardonic strangeness of the material (Graham Brinklow's corrupt-choirboy attitude is particularly effective). When director Kevin MacCallum coaches his capable quartet (including himself) to emphasize the "sick" side of their songs, the effect is hammy overkill; but when the performers stress the old-fashioned sweetness of the music (often inspired by the likes of Stephen Foster and Jerome Kern), the dissonant darkness of the words proves an irresistibly amusing introductory or refresher course on one of America's truly peculiar talents.

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