LETTERS FROM LEHRER written and performed by Richard Greenblatt, directed by Ross Manson (CanStage). At Berkeley Theatre (26 Berkeley). To February 25. $36-$51, some rush/pwyc. 416-368-3110, www.canstage.com. See Continuing Theatre Listings. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
In the late 50s and early 60s, Tom Lehrer wrote songs about things no one dared talk about, like dope and premarital sex.
Though they're less shocking today, his pieces remain as ribald and wicked as they were 40 years ago - among them Smut, a ragtime battle cry for porn, Send The Marines, an upbeat ditty on America's favourite pastime, and The Elements, in which the entire periodic table is set to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's Modern Major General.
Lehrer's songs were part of the childhood and early-adolescent soundtrack of many baby boomers, including Richard Greenblatt . Playing both himself and the songwriter in Letters From Lehrer , Greenblatt describes his lifelong love for Lehrer's music and lefty sentiment with a passion that's almost hyperactive.
The show is peppered with Greenblatt's musings about what Lehrer could have done to galvanize the left in post-war America - the kind of reflections that evoke a throaty consensus of agreement from the CanStage crowd.
But it's also a love letter to a witty, absent mentor, giving Greenblatt a chance to do what he does best: whomp out some tunes on the ivories, make a few funnies and leave everyone with a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Greenblatt's exuberant praise for Lehrer as a political critic borders on full-on fawning, but songs like The Vatican Rag, a crowd-pleaser about church reform in the 1960s that allows him to match his percussive piano playing with gonzo lyrics and a punchy bass line, explain the performer's zeal.
Still, the show is not without glitches. The piano mic was far too loud on opening night, exaggerating vocal pitch problems and the athletic approach to the music.
Lehrer purists will wonder where the subtlety and collegiate grace went, while those who know the composer's arrangements will wonder why Greenblatt insists on heavy-handed chords and glissandos when the written notes do the job.
Lehrer would abhor such sentimental musical gestures, but it's not his show - it's Greenblatt's, and as such it succeeds.