Lehrer’s Lyricisms at Canal Place Cinemas on July 15 (with possibly more dates to come)
Since the demise of Le Chat Noir and Mid-City Theatre, New Orleans has been hungering for a venue suitable for cabaret, revues and small-scale theater. As it turns out, the solution might’ve been right before our eyes.
Lehrer’s Lyricisms, a new revue featuring the songs of Tom Lehrer, has been playing in one of the theaters of Canal Place Cinemas for the past few weeks on Thursday and Sunday nights. (There’s one more performance on July 15 and the show may be coming back in the fall.) The nice-sized space offers comfortable seats, concessions from popcorn to cocktails, and plentiful parking. I’m not sure if there’re dressing rooms or much of a backstage area but, hey, Aeschylus seemed to have managed with what he had.
Lehrer’s Lyricisms comes from Phil Melancon, a self-described “lethargic lounge lizard”, who’s joined by Claudia Baumgarten, Bremner Duthie, and Alfred Richard, a face new to me but known to many as WWL-TV’s movie critic. Together, over the course of two hours, they prattle, jest, and croon two dozen of Lehrer’s brilliant, satirical ditties.
For those not familiar with Tom Lehrer (and if you aren’t, start googling now), he’s described as a “boy from Manhattan who went to Harvard at age 14 [well, 15 but who’s counting]”. A child prodigy, he eventually taught mathematics at MIT, Harvard, and the University of California, Santa Cruz before retiring in 2001.
His side gig, and what led to his fame, was composing and recording cheeky songs, starting when he was an undergrad at Harvard. His reputation spread and peaked in the 1960s when he became the resident songwriter for That Was The Week That Was, a satirical TV show. He also contributed songs to The Electric Company in the early 1970s, something I learned at Lehrer’s Lyricisms during the intro to his Silent E from that fabled reading series. Not long after, he stopped performing, but his tunes continue to be the epitome of razor-sharp wit.
Lehrer’s Lyricisms includes such well-known Lehrer numbers as National Brotherhood Week whose pointed message about love and tolerance is still all too appropriate; The Masochism Tango, just as painfully fresh as it was 60 years ago; and the Vatican II-inspired Vatican Rag which made me wonder how Lehrer would describe the current goings-on in Rome.
Other wickedly funny songs include I Hold Your Hand in Mine, an ode to necrophilia that reminded me of The Addams Family; The Irish Ballad, a wonderfully gruesome send-up of olde ballads in which a maiden fair gets rid of all the members of her family; and Alma, as in “Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel”, that rare refrain that makes reference to Das Lied von der Erde.
If Lehrer’s Lyricisms never fully explores, well, Lehrer’s lyricism(s), it certainly does give one the opportunity to appreciate his pyrotechnic way with a lyric. In Smut, the narrator asks for “Novels that pander/To my taste for candor”, while So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III) refers to the famed 1960s newscast team with “While we’re attacking frontally/Watch Brink-a-ley and Hunt-a-ley/Describing contrapuntally/The cities we have lost.”
Lehrer’s Lyricisms features casual patter–very casual–between the songs; I suspect some (most?) of it was made up on the spot and a little (lot?) less of it would beneficially make the show tighter. Richard, especially, has a tendency to go off topic as when he detoured to a comparison of Curtis Mayfield vs. Isaac Hayes. Still, I couldn’t blame him for verbally straying when a vintage bottle of K&B Mercurochrome he was using as a prop fell and broke; he seemed crestfallen at losing a bit of local history.
I wouldn’t have minded if Duthie, who provides solid support throughout and tries to keep things on track, had more to do. Ditto for Baumgarten who, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, manages best to pull off the wry humor inherent in Lehrer’s style.
Sure, some of the voices could be a bit stronger. And, yes, occasionally the lyrics were gone up on (names withheld to protect the guilty). But I have to admire Melancon, who accompanies his krewe on keyboards and accordion, for pulling off, in what heretofore had seemed like an unlikely performance space, nothing so much as a rollicking house party for a bunch of intimate friends.
Concluding with the dark dark humor of We Will All Go Together When We Go, who would’ve thought a number about nuclear holocaust could send us packing with a smile on our faces? Hmmm…maybe that’s what Lehrer’s lyricism is about after all.
For reservations and info about future performances, call (504) 202-0986 or email email@example.com.
The Chronicles of Barnia at Playmakers Theater through July 18
I’ve been going up to Covington to see shows at Playmakers Theater for over a decade. I knew it was founded in 1955, but only discovered during The Chronicles of Barnia that it’s actually among the top 20 oldest continuously operating community theaters in America, maybe even top 15. Not bad for a theater that’s off the beaten path in the heart of St. Tammany Parish’s San Souci Forest.
Like many theaters around the country, this past year has been a challenging one for Playmakers. Despite a superb production of The Glass Menagerie a few months ago, the pandemic has only compounded the difficulties Playmakers has been facing since a devastating flood in 2016.
Because of this, the decision was made that, instead of the usual big splashy (and costly) summer musical, they’d do a show about “Putting on a show to save the theater”, filled with songs from previous Playmakers productions. Hence, The Chronicles of Barnia, subtitled A Musical Celebration of Playmakers History which was arranged and directed by Jennifer Patterson.
Reminiscent of an old Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney movie, scenes of folks coming up with the script and building sets are interspersed with musical numbers that take us through auditions, rehearsals, and on to opening night.
A fun rendition of Do-Re-Mi from The Sound of Music gets the audience singing along while Edelweiss, also from that Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, provides the accompaniment for a lovely tribute to cherished members of the Playmakers community who have passed away. There’s also a running joke about Cats that amuses without purr-fectly paying off (sorry, couldn’t resist).
As the story’s savvy narrators, teenagers Alaina Neeley and Grier Patterson endow the narrative with just the right balance of enthusiasm and youthful jadedness; a description of toilet paper with the final tissue done into a folded triangle as “classy” strikes just the right note of mockery. During a recent matinee, they and other cast members are to be commended for working into the dialog the ongoing thunder that was roaring outside the theater.
While all the actors acquit themselves with aplomb, the ones who brought the biggest smile to my face were the seven young ladies who were featured in Edelweiss, Happiness (from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) and, especially, Annie’s It’s a Hard-Knock Life which they knocked out of the ballpark. In this adorable bunch of troupers, the youngest, wee 6-year-old Alianna Minor, threatened to steal the show, while 4th grader Allyson Hatch shined with her rendition of Think Positive from Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka.
As with many community theater productions, The Chronicles of Barnia is not entirely polished–some vocals don’t ring out, transitions can be a bit bumpy, and the dialogue ain’t exactly Shakespeare–but lots of love and heart have been put into it, and its 85 minutes fly by quite enjoyably.
The Chronicles of Barnia has two more performances, Saturday, July 17, at 7pm and Sunday, July 18, at 2pm. If you don’t have plans this weekend, head to Covington and support this valuable local theater.
Tickets and more info can be fund at https://playmakers-theater-05.webself.net/