After growing up listening to the musings of Tom Lehrer – thanks to my wickedly witty and musical father – I was especially looking forward to an adult field trip to Swift Creek Mill Theatre for their summer production of Tom Foolery. I am probably one of the few people my age who not only has heard of Tom Lehrer, but knows most of the words to many of the twenty-weight songs performed over the course of the variety show-style revue. My dad loved music, especially the pithy, humorous songwriters of the fifties and sixties like the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Ray Stevens, and Tom Lehrer. (A listen to some of these tunes explains a lot about my sense of humor!)
Lehrer took no prisoners when penning the songs that tackle the social and political issues of those times, and somehow, despite the topical nature of his songs, their popularity has lived on. What most probably don’t know about Tom Lehrer is that he was considered a child prodigy and entered Harvard University at age fifteen, graduating magna cum laude with a math degree. You can Google lots more about Lehrer’s life but suffice it to say, his remarkable intelligence is obvious through his lyrics and music, and no topic was off-limits for him.
As another huge Tom Lehrer fan, Swift Creek Mill’s artistic director, Tom Width, reminds us in the playbill, “Keep in mind that these songs were mostly written between 1953 and 1965, and there was plenty of fodder in society, government, religion, and world events for him to chew on.” You know what they say about the more things change… It kind of makes me wish Lehrer was still writing today – we could all use a laugh, Tom!
Like a great comedy movie, you need to experience these songs many times to pick up on all of the jokes and the ridiculously smart lyrics, but if you’re considering listening to them for the first time, Tom Foolery at Swift Creek Mill Theatre is a great place to start. I falsely assumed the performance would consist of a guy and a guitar, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a five-piece live band greet us when the curtain rose. With them came four talented actors (or are they singers? They do both so well!), one of whom I immediately recognized from Always a Bridesmaid and so many other Richmond productions, Debra Wagoner. Her cast mates, Richmond theatre notables Richard Koch and P.J. Llewellyn, and on-stage newcomer Bryan Harris (although not at all new to theatre, he’s the music pro!) were fantastic, and appeared to take on these tough songs with ease. I will forever be in awe that Bryan learned all of the words to Lehrer’s The Elements and stumbled not once. The set was colorful and fun, and the relatively simple props and costumes worked well with the songs and kept the show moving along at a nice pace. One of my favorite Lehrer songs is Vatican Rag, and the foursome donned in head to toe black priestwear, completely with giant wooden rosaries, for this one, made this Catholic girl laugh out loud.
This one’s not for the kids, as there are some adult themes, although Lehrer manages to keep foul language and vulgarity out of his songs, and it’s definitely not for the easily offended. If you’re not familiar with Tom Lehrer’s work, do a little research and listen to a few of his songs online before you head out to be sure it’s for you.
The gang at Swift Creek Mill Theatre made for a fun night for me, reminiscing about the days of singing these songs with my siblings and dad, as he played the tunes on his trusty ukulele. I’m hoping for a summer visit from at least one of my siblings, so I can see it again and we can reminisce together.
Tom Foolery is showing at Swift Creek Mill Theatre through August 18. For showtimes and tickets, visit Swift Creek Mill.
What excited me just as much as a show featuring Tom Lehrer’s music was the pre-show dinner menu at Swift Creek Mill Theatre. I love a good homecooked southern meal, especially when I don’t have to lift a finger to help prepare it, so it was a real treat to start our evening with a yummy dinner prepared by talented chef Mike Stephens. I was happy to see a full dining room and a mix of ages at the Mill for the Thursday night show, with several tables of multi-generation families enjoying food and conversation over dinner and during intermission. I was stuffed after eating heaping helpings of salad, corn chowder, shrimp and grits, meatloaf, fried okra, collards, mac and cheese, and more (I even tried pickled watermelon rinds for the first time – and liked them!). And the butterscotch pie – WOW! Our server, Sandy, kept our drinks filled and plates cleared at the buffet-style meal (but you’re served and the food is kept behind glass, which is a germaphobe’s buffet-setup dream), and we were full and happy when it was time to head upstairs for Tom Foolery.