Every now and then, Theatre Works departs from its standard practice of serving up audience-pleasing productions of mostly conservative faves, and presents something odd to shake up the subscribers. What other community theater--with a Sun City audience base, no less--would attempt Marat/Sade, or Steven Sondheim's controversial musical Assassins? This tradition of the occasional audience challenge continues with the troupe's production of Tomfoolery, the Tom Lehrer musical revue, which opens Friday, July 17, and runs through Sunday, August 9.

Lehrer has had a really unique show biz career--Harvard mathematics professor by day, singer of satirical ditties by night. This unassuming-looking gent with horn-rimmed glasses and questionable musical talents started writing sick little songs to perform for friends at parties. Those very cronies encouraged him to record his growing collection of tunes, so our hero actually paid a Cambridge, Massachusetts, recording studio $15 for the privilege. He pressed up 400 copies of Songs by Tom Lehrer and sold them around town at the few campus gigs he'd play. After a while, he started getting orders from out of town and around the country. Since he'd never advertised, it was clear that students were buying the albums and spreading the word back home.

This was all a word-of-mouth phenomenon, since Lehrer's stuff simply could not find a home on 1950s radio. It's hard to imagine a playlist consisting of Patti Page's "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" followed by something like "I Hold Your Hand in Mine," Lehrer's love song about a man who cuts off his beloved's hand to keep it with him at all times: "I hold your hand in mine, dear/I press it to my lips/I take a healthy bite from your dainty fingertips. . . ."

Titles such as "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" and "The Masochism Tango" are pretty self-explanatory, while "My Home Town" sounds tame until you hear the lyrics. The rather jaunty tune is about a hideous neighborhood inhabited by perverts teaching school and murderers working at the local candy store.

Lehrer's bizarrely hilarious songs weren't remotely like anything else at the time. He was a deeply cynical humorist with a sharp wit and a shamelessness about going after creepy giggles. When he'd sing "All the world seems in tune on a spring afternoon/When we're poisoning pigeons in the park," it sure sounded like he meant it. Offering up an optimistic word of advice to new grads in "Bright College Days," he mused, "Soon we'll be out amid the world's cold strife/Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life."

Lehrer never really enjoyed the show-business aspect of his career. His first album was recorded in 1953; his last, An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, in 1966. That Was the Year That Was, released in 1965, was a compilation of songs written for NBC's satirical and daring-before-its-time TV series That Was the Week That Was, which ran into trouble with network censors who had an unfortunate knack for cutting lines from the songs that they deemed too controversial or offensive. So much for satire, so for Lehrer it was back to the arms of academia at Harvard. He's been there ever since, except for a brief relapse in the '70s, when he penned a few cute songs for the PBS kids' show The Electric Company.

Fans of his strange albums have always treasured them, however. Two such fans were Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray, who received the professor's blessing for Tomfoolery, their revue of Lehrer's 30 songs, which premiered in London in 1980. Theatre Works' four-woman, two-man cast is directed by Gerald Thompson, a Lehrer fan since he was a kid. "It was great to rediscover [Lehrer's] creativity as an adult," says Thompson. "Tom takes us back to a time when it was okay not to be politically correct. He comments on life in our society in a funny, light way with serious commentary underneath." But can 40-year-old satire still have bite in 1998? Well, Tomfoolery includes songs about racism, crooked politicians, societal stereotypes and abuses by organized religion. What, exactly, is so very different?

--David Gofstein

Tomfoolery opens at 8 p.m. Friday, July 17, as part of Theatre Works' Summer Stock series. Performances continue at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 18; and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, July 19, at Theatre Works, 9850 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets range from $13 to $15, less for students and seniors. 815-7930.

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David Gofstein