Beyond a Joke
The Pheasantry, London, U.K., January 24, 2017
Reviewed by Thanasis Kalantzis for Cabaret Scenes
Stefan Bednarczyk comes with impeccable credentials. He studied music at Oxford University and worked as a musical director with the most prominent theaters in London (National, Barbican, Almeida, Hampstead, etc.) and all over the rest of the country and the world. He has done stage, TV and films and has worked opposite such names as Gene Wilder and Ann Reid, and recently played Stephen Foster in Florence Foster Jenkins opposite Meryl Streep. As a cabaret performer, he has brought to the stage the works of Flanders and Swann, Comden and Green, and Noël Coward.
In his latest cabaret adventure, Beyond a Joke, the accomplished pianist and singer explores the music and lyrics of three satirists who defined the genre in the twentieth century, namely those of the laugh-out-loud Allan Sherman, the offensively clever Tom Lehrer, and the ultimately unclassifiable Jake Thackray.
He started with Sherman’s “Second Hand Nose,” a parody of the well-known “Second Hand Rose” and then invited us on a walk to the park to poison pigeons together (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” by Lehrer). The performer confessed that he learned more about music from Lehrer than in his three years at university put together, recognizing him as “forensic on his analysis of musical form.”
In that spirit, Lehrer’s already hilarious “Clementine” was given four different musical treatments: Porter-esque; a Mozart-like aria for baritones; a bebop jazz version garnished with many, many, beebs and bops; and in a side-splitting Gilbert and Sullivan style.
Thackray has a special place in the performer’s heart. They both came from the North (Leeds) and both went to the same English school, they even shared the same English teacher. Things went beyond a joke when the artist sang Thackray’s politically charged “The Bull,” about authority and celebrity, in which the lyricist warns us to always be aware of the big beast—big in every sense, from its size to its…waste.
The Gershwins’ “Love Is Here to Stay” is Bednarczyk’s favorite song, even if, as he confessed, he knew its parody, “Your Mother’s Here to Stay” by Sherman, long before he knew the original.
Despite the fact that beer and socialism always went hand in hand, the artist became much more political after he stopped drinking it as much. He encapsulated his relevant thoughts in the “As Soon as This Pub Closes” (Alex Glasgow) and promised to start the revolution immediately after that.
He closed his first set with Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah! (A Letter from Camp),” bringing a smile to audience face with the familiar tune.
He opened his second set with another Sherman song, the excruciatingly funny “Painless Dentist,” and then moved on to more complex issues by singing Lehrer’s “Oedipus Rex.” You see, every famous story needs a theme song and Sophocles’s tragedy was lacking one, so there you go.
In 1959, in an attempt to address the relationship between the church and the modern world, Pope John XXIII announced the second Vatican council. Naturally, it was a field trip for satirists and Bednarczyk chose two songs that described the hoopla: Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag,” which was meant to make the church more commercial and sell the product; and Thackray’s bloody funny nun, “Sister Josephine.”
The artist chose three more songs to highlight Thackray’s amazing story telling abilities: “Lah-Di-Dah”, about what’s coming after you’ve said “I love you” to somebody; the somehow dark love story between a little old maid and a shy blacksmith in the “The Blacksmith and the Toffee-Maker”; and the tale of the inconsiderate visiting relative, “Leopold Alcocks.”
Two anti-war songs by Lehrer followed: written during the Vietnam war, “Send the Marines” speaks against U.S. interventionism (I am still haunted by the line “For might makes right”); and “So Long Mom,” about a soldier who’s “off to drop the bomb” in the not-so-far-off third world war.
He wrapped up his show with the light “I Got It from Agnes” (Lehrer), a song that, as the performer assured us, is not about a common cold.
Beyond a Joke delivers exactly what it promises: with a carefully selected song list and well-crafted jokes, it intends to give you a good laugh, but goes beyond this narrow objective. In true classical tradition, using metaphor, simile and the work of geniuses, Bednarczyk satirizes clichés of social life, love, religion and the political scene with clarity and intellectual potency.
This is a very funny show, which forces the mental muscles to work in full capacity, by a man who has a story to tell and a song to sing. A rare cabaret evening out.