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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Dead-on satire lives and breathes in ‘Tomfoolery’ in Sturgeon Bay

Critic At Large

Third Avenue Playhouse

Joel Kopischke, left, Carmen Risi and Bradley Halverson play schoolchildren praising the virtues of an alphabet letter in “Silent E” in the Third Avenue Playhouse production of “Tomfoolery.” (Heidi Hodges)

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV)

“Tomfoolery” is a joyful tap-dance of satire.

Characters include:

An academic who revels in plagiarism…

“The Old Dope Peddler,” whose free samples to kiddies today lead to tomorrow’s clientele…

The quick-shot hunter who bags two game wardens, seven hunters and a cow…

A couple whose poisoning of pigeons in the park is a step to research…

A jaunty New Math teacher who simply makes folks dizzy…

And… pervs and a euphemistic ex-Nazi and prancing clerics and a merry murderer and good ole Oedipus Rex’s mother.

One man is behind the merciless teasing, but it takes a cast of four and collaborators to pull off his musical shenanigans.

No other theater around here than Third Avenue Playhouse would, could or maybe want to touch “Tomfoolery” – and certainly not in the way the professional company’s players can.

Director Robert Boles primes the pump of his devilishly able cast for the showcase of humor that’s mildly offensive but fun.

The tap-dance reference at the start is on purpose. The production going on until Oct. 20 in the playhouse’s Studio Theatre includes a tap-dance segment that astounds. The routine lasts maybe a minute, but it’s like Fourth of July fireworks afoot – super-fast, athletic and with quick stops for balancing on toes. I’ve never seen anything like what Ryan Cappleman erupts into.

Music director, etc. Ryan Cappleman. (Heidi Hodges)

Ryan Cappleman is music director and part of the song/dance action, along with sharing duties for ditties on the piano.

He is joined by Carmen Risi (on piano, too), Bradley Halverson and Joel Kopischke.

Each has solo sections that score, and as a team the four are like a pack of hyenas that seem to laugh as they tear and rip and devour not-so-innocent victims. “Political correctness? – Ha, we laugh at your political correctness! Grrr… yum, yum.”

Each player sings, dances, leaps and into coocoo characters. Snapshots:

Carmen Risi tossing back shots and rolling “Gua-da-la-ja-ra” of the tongue in carefree, care-less old Mexico.

Ryan Cappleman and Carmen Risi. (Heidi Hodges)

Bradley Halverson’s amour with a severed hand of his love.

Joel Kopischke’s warp-speed romp through all the steps of a Russian mathematician’s ladder to publishing off the sweat of others.

Ryan Cappleman’s lears, be it for the dope guy or folks who fancy trips to the wild side.

One song does not mock, ridicule or taunt. One. “Silent E” was written for TV’s “The Electric Company,” and the song is clever as words become new by adding a letter. Like in this sentence: Cutting humor loses its cut when adding an “e” to become cute.

In ways, “Tomfoolery” is a throwback. In ways, it is not.

Is a throwback: The songs are generally from the 1950s and ’60s. They were written as a sidelight by Tom Lehrer. He was a cult star – or as is said in this show, he “enjoyed enormous limited popularity.”

Tom Lehrer, who is retired at age 91, is a really smart guy who graduated from Harvard at 18 and wrote songs when he wasn’t wrasslin’ mathematical equations.

To dress the show, folk music of the era is played beforehand and at intermission, and posters and such are displayed on the back wall. Included are a Republican poster for Dwight Eisenhower, a Democratic poster for Adlai Stevenson, the Playboy cover with Marilyn Monroe, a movie poster for “The Blob,” a magazine ad for Edsel, the Life magazine cover with Wernher Von Braun (the ex-Nazi rocket guy), a black-and-yellow fallout shelter sign, a government poster on “Radioactive Fallout… Get the Facts” and a poster for Buddy Holly’s 1959 “Winter Dance Party” for Jan. 25 (not listed on the poster, but it’s for Mankato, Minnesota). An impression the display leaves is “Tomfoolery” is a step back in time. And it is for those who know of Tom Lehrer and have heard his oh so wise-guy/witty songs.

Is not a throwback: The dope peddler is still lurking. Cities are still clogged with smog and refuse (“Pollution”). There’s still messin’ around with nuclear arms (“Who’s Next”). Racism and bigotry are still afoot and blind-eyed (“National Brotherhood Week”). Age still creeps, not kindly (“When You Are Old and Gray”). Hormones still dance (“Smut,” “My Hometown,” “The Masochism Tango”).

It’s scary that many of the songs that Tom Lehrer wrote about what he saw around him a half-century ago are not that far off today or still apply.

In a sense, “Tomfoolery” is stand-up comedy with a piano, embellished by high-octane musical theater performers. Today, Tom Lehrer’s topics are covered by stand-up comics delivering vehement outrage, often loaded with expletives. Tom Lehrer’s outrage took a subtle path, with ironic ridicule tippy-toeing in light tunes with nary a whisper of an expletive – and the outrage wholly pointed and macabre and mean and offended nonetheless.

“Tomfoolery” is a treat.

Joel Kopischke. (Heidi Hodges)

A side story: The show comes with a pedigree. One of the people who created “Tomfoolery” in 1980 is Cameron Mackintosh. He would go on to produce such international hits as “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables,” “Miss Saigon” and “Cats.” His touch is part of the recent version of “Mary Poppins” that added warmth to the original dark story.

I once interviewed Cameron Mackintosh in his office in London by telephone, and his answer to one question seems to apply to the current company for “Tomfoolery.”

Q. “Where does the fun lie?”

A. “It’s working with people that you like or respect and who get the same sort of enjoyment of putting on a show as I do because in the end only an idiot would go into theater just to make money. It’s very hard to make money in the theater, and you’ve absolutely got to love it and not want to do anything else in the world. I think people who treat the theater as a business usually come a cropper. This is not to say that the theater shouldn’t be run very business-like, but the business should be there to support the art, not vice versa.”

***

Creative: Words and music – Tom Lehrer, adapted by Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray, with musical arrangements by Chris Walker and Robert Fisher; director – Robert Boles; musical director – Ryan Cappleman; choreography – Ryan Cappleman; costume design – Abby Simmons; production manager/lighting and sound design – James Balistreri; set design – James Valcq; master carpenter – Ed DiMaio; co-artistic directors – Robert Boles and James Valcq; managing director – Amy Frank

Cast:

Ryan Cappleman

Bradley Halverson

Joel Kopischke

Carmen Risi

Musicians: Piano – Ryan Cappleman, Carmen Risi; percussion – Bradley Halverson, Joel Kopischke

Running time: One hour, 55 minutes

Remaining performances: To Oct. 20: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Info: thirdavenueplayhouse.com

***

Musical numbers

Act I

“Be Prepared” – Halverson, Risi, Kopischke, Cappleman

“Poisoning the Pigeons in the Park” – Halverson, Risi

I Wanna Go Back to Dixie” – Kopischke, Halverson, Cappleman

“My Hometown” – Cappleman

“Pollution” – Halverson, Risi, Kopischke, Cappleman

“Bright College Days”/ “Fight Fiercely, Harvard” – Halverson, Kopischke, Cappleman

“The Elements” – Cappleman (music by Sir Arthur Sullivan)

“Clementine” – Halverson, Risi, Kopischke, Cappleman (additional music and lyrics by Ryan Cappleman)

“In Old Mexico” – Risi, Halverson, Kopischke

“She’s My Girl” – Halverson

“When You Are Old and Gray” – Halverson, Risi, Kopischke, Cappleman

“Wernher Von Braun” – Cappleman

“Who’s Next?” –  Halverson, Risi, Kopischke, Cappleman

“I Got It from Agnes” – Halverson

“National Brotherhood Week” – Halverson, Risi, Kopischke, Cappleman

Act II

“So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III)” – Cappleman, Kopischke

“Send in the Marines” – Halverson, Risi, Kopischke, Cappleman

“The Hunting Song” – Halverson

“Wiener Schnitzel Waltz” – Risi

“Smut” – Halverson, Risi, Kopischke, Cappleman

“New Math” – Kopischke, Cappleman

“Silent E” – Halverson, Cappleman

“Lobachevsky” – Kopischke

“Oedipus Rex” – Risi

“I Hold Your Hand in Mine” – Halverson, Kopischke, Cappleman

“The Masochism Tango” – Kopischke

“The Old Dope Peddler” – Cappleman

“The Vatican Rag” – Halverson, Risi, Kopischke, Cappleman

“We Will All Go Together When We Go” – Halverson, Risi, Kopischke, Cappleman

***

NEXT: “A Tuna Christmas” by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, Dec. 12-31.

THE VENUE: The 84-seat Studio Theatre is located in Third Avenue Playhouse, 239 N. Third Ave., in downtown Sturgeon Bay. The space is tucked into the corner off the main theater of the playhouse. Entry is along a long hallway off the playhouse’s lobby. To the left on the hallway wall is a growing display of photos of past productions. Studio Theatre is a black-box theater; the walls, sloped floor and support beams are black. The permanent fold-down theater seats are of red fabric seats on red metal, wooden arms and curved wood backs with metal edging. The focus is the stage, which is rectangular and has no curtain. With the closeness of the audience to the stage, the aura is the audience is part of what is transpiring in the play. Co-artistic directors James Valcq and Robert Boles have operated the playhouse since 2011. The origins of Third Avenue Playhouse date to 1999. The playhouse previously was a movie theater, the Donna.

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