By Russ Bickerstaff   Published Nov 19, 2004 at 5:03 AM

{image1} Songwriter piano man Tom Lehrer was a powerful talent in his heyday. He wrote classics like "The Masochism Tango," "The Vatican Rag," and "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" and could perform his own songs with perfect timing and intricate wit that was delicately dusted with darkness around the edges taking you beyond his lighthearted humor. It's been decades since his last album.

Lehrer now teaches drama and mathematics at the University of California and hasn't gone on tour in a long time. It's a real tragedy considering how sophisticated his comedy was. With its latest production at the Stackner Cabaret, The Milwaukee Rep pays tribute to a man who never should've gone into any kind of retirement, even if it was in the interest of higher education.

"Tomfoolery," is a collection of Lehrer's songs adapted for the stage by Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray. And for the full effect, Lehrer-themed dishes and drinks juice up the menu. I highly suggest the "Masochism Mango." And after drinks and delicious foodstuffs are served, the lights adjust and the players take the stage.

The ensemble consists of three performers: two singers and a pianist. They all have a remarkable amount of talent under their belts. Norman Moses, who recently appeared in "The Odd Couple" at the Marcus Center, has done work for the Skylight Opera and has appeared as guest soloist in symphony orchestras nationwide. Kay Stiefel has performed for the cabaret and has appeared in musical productions with numerous companies all over the area. Pianist Richard Carsey, the principal conductor for the Skylight Opera, also served as its artistic director for a number of years.

It's apparent -- even after a few songs -- that the trio's experience is noteworthy here as well. While they may not have Lehrer's exact timing and fluency with the music, they cheerfully ham-it-up through punch line after punch line with a genuine degree of pleasure. And this is perfectly fine if you're into that sort of thing (if you've come to the Stackner Cabaret, there's a really good chance that you are).

But if you're a Tom Lehrer fan, something's not right about it. It's only slightly unsettling at first, but by your second or third Masochism Mango, the feeling creeps up on you. It's too difficult to ignore by the time they've made it into their 12th or 13th song. That's when they play "So Long Mom."

"So Long Mom" is Lehrer's sweetly sinister ode to World War Three. A young man sings of flying off to drop the bomb that serves as the beginning of the end. This is where the darkness of Lehrer's anger and frustration explodes in a really wicked satire of militaristic patriotism.

It's simultaneously funny and upsetting when he performs it, but Moses, Stiefel and Carsey are playing it entirely for fun. One doesn't get the sense of anger or frustration felt behind the words. Lehrer's darkness -- very apparent in the music and lyrics -- is nowhere to be found in their performance. This inadequacy plagues much of the production.

The modern references found in the little bits of monologue are also troubling. They clash unsettlingly with the songs themselves, which were all written at least thirty years ago. Mentioning Paris Hilton in, "Smut" (Lehrer's ode to pornography) seems charming, but doesn't sit right with the rest of the song. "Tomfoolery" could've done without this.

But the lightheartedness does do justice to the songs meant to carry that tone, drawn exclusively from Lehrer's lighter side. The chalkboard visual presentation of "New Math" is one of the best parts of the performance. "Fight Fiercely Harvard," "The Elements" and "The Hunting Song" all made it to the stage with an enjoyable flair.

The Rep's production of "Tomfoolery" plays now through Jan. 9 at the Stackner Cabaret in the Patty and Jay Baker Theater Complex. Tickets range in price from $22-$35 and can be purchased in advance by calling the box office at (414) 224-9490.