Imagination is something Tom Lehrer has always had plenty of as a singer-songwriter. His irreverent ditties, which delighted college students in the 1950s and 1960s, are back as ''Tomfoolery,'' a musical review launched in London two years ago and now at Chicago's Apollo Theater for a six-week run.
As a wordsmith, Mr. Lehrer, who now teaches math at the University of California's Santa Cruz campus and no longer writes songs, has a Gilbert and Sullivan zest for trying to make the patter of rhyme carry a message rather than lapse into gibberish. In that mission, he succeeds very well.
No subject is sacrosanct when it comes to Lehrer's lyrical darts. He pokes fun at nearly every kind of institution. Some of it works and some of it doesn't. The world has changed considerably over the last two decades, and songs that once were clearly bizarre and far out have somehow moved a giant step closer to home. Many of the songs were written before the civil-rights movement heightened national sensitivity to the rights and feelings of individuals. Accordingly, some of the Lehrer jabs seem now to have too sharp an edge. It is the gently teasing song, mixed with a little obvious affection, which now works best with the audience. Case in point: The revue's toe-tapping piece on Hollywood's gift to Capitol Hill as a tuxedoed song-and-dance man sings an ode to former Sen. George Murphy.
Several songs, on such themes as pollution and nuclear war, seem more timely than ever. And while the listener might prefer hearing it all from Tom Lehrer himself at the piano, this highly polished, tightly packaged, and definitely dramatic production by a professional team of four singers and dancers makes for a very entertaining evening.
It is nonetheless worth noting that the most successful numbers in the production shine more in the dexterity and charm department than in verbal putdowns of people or institutions. Robin Nicholas's rapid rendition of ''The Elements'' (as in uranium and lead) is a marvelous display of both Mr. Lehrer's love of words and their sounds and of the singer's remarkable mental agility. And in ''Silent E,'' written for a children's television show in the 1970s, the composer explains to a delighted audience how a tub can change into a tube and how little it takes for a small hug to become huge.