Review by Robin Breon
Move over Jersey Boys, there's a new jukebox musical coming to town. Well not exactly jukebox material in that not one of Tom Lehrer's bitingly satirical tunes ever made it onto a forty-five rpm and into a jukebox. But he did record three albums (between 1959 and 1965) with memorable song titles such as: Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, I Wanna Go Back to Dixie, The Old Dope Peddler, Be Prepared ("That's the Boy Scout's marching song..."), Send the Marines, Pollution, The Vatican Rag, and that memorable paean to nuclear extermination, We Will All Go Together When We Go. He never had much more than a cult following for his live performances, although you might occasionally have heard a Lehrer song on the radio late late at night when some subversive dj would slip in one of his tunes, knowing full well that it was long past the station manager's bedtime.
When the multi-talented actor-director-playwright and musician Richard Greenblatt (2 Pianos, 4 Hands) conceived the idea of a an evening based around Lehrer's work, he wrote and asked for permission to which Lehrer replied: "I grant you tentative approval to pursue this project, however I want to make it clear from the onset that I will not contribute or collaborate with you in any way. I'm sure the thing can sink very well on its own accord." The ensuing correspondence between the two of them - now cleverly incorporated into Greenblatt's script - becomes a key component to the story and contains some of the biggest laughs of the evening.
It is also a very personal story for Greenblatt who has written a kind of I Am My Own Life. Born a red-diaper baby of a Jewish family in Montreal (his parents left the Communist Party in 1956), Greenblatt remembers Lehrer as a funny, uplifting musical life raft thrown into a sea of personal despair brought on by the strident anti-communism and persecution of the McCarthy period. Although the Brechtian trope of trying to capture the headlines of the fifties and sixties by the use of projected film clips and iconic photographic images becomes a bit unnecessarily didactic at times, the historical context is important and Greenblatt does his best to give us a spoonful of bitter expository medicine before he gets on to the next Lehrer song.
But the driving force of the production is Mr. Greenblatt. Over the years, he has mastered the art of playing a younger version of himself (2 Pianos, 4 Hands; Sibs) and his ebullience and enthusiasm as an adolescent contrasted with the wry, sardonic wit of Lehrer's own observations, accomplished mainly by throwing on a pair of black horn-rimmed glasses to become Lehrer, is effective and compelling.
Although his vocal range is limited, the tunes don't call for much of a stretch and his musicianship is excellent (doubtless with chops kept in shape after 750 performances of 2 Pianos, 4 Hands). The greatest technical problem to overcome seemed to be a sound system on opening night that had the piano at war with the vocal in a theatre that is acoustically challenged to begin with.
I give this show two big thumbs up. Although, in truth my thumbs are not that big and since they are both mine, I'll probably be accused of double counting. But who cares? With Letters From Lehrer, Richard Greenblatt achieves a lively, entertaining evening of song and rants.