Leonard Bernstein used to say that music is never funny in itself, though you can do funny things withm it. A number of comedians have tackled this job over the years, from Spike Jones and Danny Kaye to the more recent Peter Schickele.
Of all these well-tuned comics, the most distinguished is probably Victor Borge, an unmelancholy Dane whose rhythmical routines have been captivating audiences for decades. His current act, caught at Artpark in upstate New York, is fresh and funny and full of Borge traditions, all the way from sly punmanship to outright slapstick. Today as in the past, Borge loves music and language about equally. But he loves a good gag even better, and there's nothing this side of the lost chord and he won't deliver a vigorous ribbing to.
Naturally, a piano dominates the stage: a piano that will be leaned on, looked at, complained about, joked about, talked about, and alluded to, far more often than it is actually played. It's more a prop than an instrument, and Borge treats it as the comfy old companion it is -- using the music rack as a mirror, fishing unlikely objects out of the bench, even fastening a seatbelt so the more vigorous passages won't knock him clear out of his seat.
As the evening continues, the soloist is joined by guests. One is strapping young man (played by Borge's son) who has yet to master the art of page turning. When his elbow gets in the way, however, the pianist is willing to slide to his knees in order to see the music, which necessities using the page turner's foot for pedaling, with signals communicated by tugs on the young man's necktie. . . . Never mind, it almost defies description.
The other guest is an attractive coloratura who precipitates both the rowdiest and most rarified moments of the show. To the special delight of every child in the audience (and the child in every music-lover) Borge can't abide the "screening" of this dignified lady, and will stop at nothing to sabotage her "Caro Nome," which is well-meant but rather loud.When subtler means fail, he finally erupts into an exasperated "Oh, shut up!" -- not very polite, but guaranteed to raise howls of glee from every operagoer who has ever been goaded by an overambitious soprano. Or basso, for that matter.
Since he adores music as much as he needles it, though, Borge doesn't let matters rest like this. Soon he is accompanying the soprano in real music -- even stuffy music, including a high style and somewhat lulling Schubert "Ave Maria" with the singer heard in solemn tones from offstage. There are other points in the show, too, when Borge goes serious on us -- not breaking off in mid-phrase for an unexpected joke, but pursuing a piece to its finish, and reminding us that his fingers can be as nimble as his wit.
but these are exceptions in a mostly verbal and generally rollicking evening.Borge's main task is to work his way around, not through, the chestnuts of the musical repertoire. He'll play the last few measures of a sonata, and proudly point out that we've saved half an hour by skipping the rest. Then he'll do the last few measures of "Aida" and congratulate us for saving an entire evening! But what can you expect from a man who begins his show by announcing that "there's going to be an intermission soon. . . ."
Even his verbal humor has a musical twist, as in his perennial "oral punctuation" routine -- a venerable skit wherein he reads a literary passage complete with noisy, self-invented punctuation. Hearing this old gag reprised, with as much vigor and energy as ever, is like hearing an old tune that hasn't passed your way for a while. It's nostalgic, but it's still good on its own terms, too. And it's marvelously funny. That's always the Borge bonus.