Elden Street Players TomfooleryBy Bob Ashby • Jan 29th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Elden Street Players (Info) (Web)
Industrial Strength Theater, Herndon, VA
Through February 16th
1:50 with one intermission
Reviewed January 26th, 2013
True story: In 1994, I had a minor role in an excellent production of Medea at Elden Street Players (ESP). In the interest of corrupting vulnerable young minds, I made a cassette tape of my favorite Tom Lehrer songs, which I presented to a very bright 11-year old who played one of Medea’s doomed sons. His mother told me that he wouldn’t play anything else in the car tape player for three weeks. Mission accomplished. Well, Tom Lehrer has returned to ESP with a vengeance, in a delightfully funny production of *Tomfoolery*, a revue of Lehrer’s songs put together by Cameron Mackintosh and others in 1980.
For any benighted souls who do not already know, Lehrer was a math nerd turned writer of satirical and downright silly songs that he performed on the college circuit and club venues in the 1950s and 60s. Drugs, sex, murder, and perversion play prominent roles in his lyrics, along with excursions into math, science, and politics. While many of the songs are full of topical references (to Huntley/Brinkley, Werner von Braun, and Sherriff Clark, for example), most hold up very well 50-60 years after they were written.
The standout in the ESP production, directed by Adriana Hardy, is Matthew “Moose” Thompson, a tenor possessing a killer voice. I use that term advisedly, as Thompson shines particularly in songs focusing on mayhem, like “The Hunting Song” (in which he bags “seven hunters, two game wardens, and a cow”), “I Hold Your Hand in Mine” (the remainder of his girlfriend’s body having been disposed of), and “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” (self-explanatory). Thompson, whose program biography credits him primarily as a singer, has some good acting bits as well, notably as a hick hunter in “The Hunting Song.”
Matthew Scarborough is given some of the evening’s intellectually weightier material, explaining the mysteries of “The New Math” (in a sort of British accent, for some reason) and breezing through the contents of the Periodic Table, to the tune of “The Modern Major General,” in “The Elements.” In addition to his crystal clear vocals, Scarborough does professorial hauteur very nicely.
The only female vocalist, Becca Harney, uses her fine soprano voice effectively in a couple of foreign travel-oriented numbers, “The Irish Ballad” (more murders) and “In Old Mexico” (bullfighting). Her low point (as Lehrer – who was an apostle of topsy-turvydom like no one since Mr. Gilbert himself — might put it) is a stunning burlesque queen take on “Oedipus Rex.” Matt Williams, the only baritone in the crew, doesn’t have any single number as memorable as some of the above, but he probably has the greatest variety of material in the cast, and competently performs some very different sorts of songs, like “She’s My Girl” and “Werner von Braun.”
Most productions of Tomfoolery use four performers, usually three men and a woman. Hardy adds a fifth, Caroline Simpson, a dancer who is not given any solo singing material. Simpson dances extremely well, her highlight being “The Masochism Tango,” in which her sadist character does many terrible things to Matt Williams as he sings the number. In the one dubious choice that Hardy makes, she assigns Simpson to perform a ballet piece on stage right while Williams is singing “Werner von Braun” on stage left. The dancing, as well as it is executed, has nothing to do with the subject matter and serves mainly to pull focus from the song.
Music director Tom Fuller, an actor as well as a musician, provides the on-stage piano accompaniment impeccably. He also occasionally joins the narration and, as the Tomfoolery pianist traditionally does, sings “The Old Dope Peddler,” which over the years has become the most ruefully serious song in the show.
To avoid becoming static, a revue needs a good deal of movement. Hardy and choreographer Robyn Avalon keep things lively and interesting, particularly in group numbers like “The Vatican Rag” and “I Got It From Agnes.”
The four singers and Fuller share the narration, adapted from (and often quoting) Lehrer’s patter found on his albums. They succeed well in conveying Lehrer’s sardonic tone. As is sometimes the case for revues, the song list can vary among productions. This production omits a few of the songs often found in other productions, such as “Bright College Days ” (with its wonderful line about “sliding down the razor blade of life”), “Fight Fiercely, Harvard,” and “Send the Marines,” arguably tightening the show but still creating a mild sense of bereavement in those of us who can’t get enough Lehrer.
The set for the ESP production consists of three low circular platforms: there is a bar with stools on stage left, the piano in center, and a bench and prop trunk on stage right. Hardy uses all the spaces effectively, varying the location of numbers from one to the other. A large projection screen looms over center stage. Before the show, accompanied by 1960s popular music, the screen helps set the period mood by displaying facts and trivia from 1963. Later, it shows slides relevant to various numbers, such as a Periodic Table during “The Elements” and a nuclear explosion during “We Shall All Go Together When We Go.” The slides add visual interest without distracting from the performances.
In a show where the performers adopt different characters only for the duration of a song, and only infrequently leave the stage, Farrel Hartigan’s costume design emphasized quickly changeable costume bits (hats, shawls, multicolored sleeve attachments, etc.). There were some delicious individual moments, however, such as the burlesque outfit for “Oedipus Rex,” the outdoorsy garb for “The Hunting Song,” and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence-style nun getups in “The Vatican Rag.”
ESP’s Industrial Strength Theater is a compact black box, with seating close to the playing area (none more than 20 feet away, according to an article in last Thursday’s Washington Post). In this space, it is foolish to insist on using microphones for good singers like the members of this cast. Having performed in successful musicals in this theater with ESP, I can testify from personal experience that the audience can hear perfectly well without amplification. There is no reason to force a situation in which, for example, Harney’s voice comes from somewhere above center stage when she is plainly standing on far stage left.
ESP recently announced that it is transitioning to be a professional company, to be renamed “NextStop Theatre.” One can only wish them good fortune in this attempt (better luck than the recently-deceased Vpstart Crow, certainly), but this change also creates a gap in the community theater scene in Northern Virginia. Along with such groups as the Reston Community Players and the Little Theater of Alexandria, ESP has for many years been part of the top tier of community playhouses in the area, with a more adventurous play selection policy than many other groups. While a new professional company is very welcome, participants and audiences who support top-notch, volunteer theater will have one less place to make and view good non-professional productions.
When Elden Street invited me to debut with then by directing one of my favorite small musicals, I was delighted to discover that 2013 was the 25th anniversary of the formation of their group. This was particularly significant, because it was also 25 years ago that Tom Fuller and I last collaborated in mounting this show. To round things out, we have observed in Tom Lehrer style that 25+25 is 50 because addition is commutative, and decided to declare this production a celebration (of sorts) of the 50th anniversary (more or less) of Tom Lehrer’s emergence as a performer rather than a math teacher whose “naughty” records were sold under the counter for the enjoyment of high schoolers and other sophisticates. Since 2013-50 equals 1963 (in base 10, anyway), we now invite you to sit back, and, if you are old enough, recall those halcyon days when outrageous satire was still politically correct, and celebrate our author by enjoying the preposterously pretentious ponderous production unfolding before you. And, in doing so be mindful of Tom Lehrer’s ambition:
“If after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worthwhile”
As the three Matthews, ‘Becca, and Caroline strive to achieve this goal in celebration of almost everybody and everything, while Tom Fuller tries to get some of the notes right…
I thank them, all the production staff, and you, the audience for joining me in this celebration.
- Becca: Becca Harney
- Matthew: Matthew Scarborough
- Caroline: Caroline Simpson
- Moose: Matthew “Moose” Thompson
- Matt: Matt Williams
- Producer: Susan d. Garvey
- Director: Adriana Hardy
- Music Director: Tom Fuller
- Stage Manager: Don Peterson
- Choreographer: Robyn Avalon
- Assisted by: Adriana Hardy
- Dance Captain: Angela Ramacci
- Music Rehearsal: Laurie Corkey
- Set Design: Ian Mark Brown
- Master Carpenter: Ian Mark Brown
- Assisted by: Jeff Boatright, Marty Sullivan, Theresa Bender, Kevin Walker, Mike Clendenin, Richard Durkin, Janet Bordeaux, Robin Zerbe
- Set Painting Design: Cathy Rieder
- Assisted by: Sabrina Begley, Susan d. Garvey, Annie Begley, Lorraine Magee
- Light Design: Chris Hardy
- Board Operator: Christine Nolan, Mary Ann Hall, Lorraine Magee, Susan d. Garvey
- Sound Design: Brian Christensen
- Technical Assistance: Stan Harris
- Special Effecrts Design: Michael Sherman
- Costume Design: Farrell Hartigan
- Set Dressing and Properties: Mike Smith
- Hair and Makeup Design: Kat Brais
- Publicity Photographer: Matt Rose
- Executive Producer: Jeff Boatright
- House Management: Evan Hoffmann
- Box Office Management: Sandra Sullivan
- Publicity: Rich Klare, Maria Benzie, Mathew Thompson, Evan Hoffmann
- Production Research: Linda Ray
- Marketing/PR: Maria Benzie
- Playbill: Ginger Kohles
Disclaimer: Elden Street Players provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9074.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.