note: entire contents copyright 1996 by E. Kyle Minor
The butler does it again.
P. G. Wodehouse's venerable Jeeves proves as resourceful as ever in "By Jeeves," running through January 19 at Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. The musical, adapted faithfully by playwright Alan Ayckbourn, is charming, well-directed and a grand departure for its composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.
"By Jeeves," which played pinata to Webber's critics in its original production a decade ago in England, owes more to Wodehouse than to any other creative energy on its artistic team.
Wodehouse, in fact, was no stranger to musical-comedy, having dashed off well over 20 libretti with Guy Bolton, mostly for Jerome Kern and his Princess Theatre. The confection whipped up by Ayckbourn is as light, fluffy and charming as the novelist's personal best -- like "Anything Goes" or "Oh Kay!"
If you familiar with the "Jeeves" stories, you will happily recognize the shenanigans of the butler and his amusingly inept employer, Bertie Wooster. If you've just emerged from your cave never having seen or read anything of the unflappable butler, the plotting of the musical will still ring familiar.
What puts "By Jeeves" over is Ayckbourn's inventive staging, some jovial songs and beguiling performances of all concerned, especially John Scherer's Bertie Wooster. "By Jeeves" assumes the play-within-a-play structure. The bare stage is set for a banjo concert, lead by Bertie himself. As bad luck would have it, his five-string has been detained and Bertie, at Jeeves' suggestion of course, fills the time with an anecdote or two.
The ensuing story is a well-groomed "shaggy dog," complete with songs, black-tie shtick and constant winks and nods to the audience, lest it should forget that it is in fact watching a dramatic presentation. Bertie will coo over a particularly nifty piece of stage craft invented by his butler, for instance.
While these cute strolls outside the point at hand flirt with tedium, they don't impede the comedic snowball from building. The truth is that "By Jeeves" is as reliant upon its plot as the original "Girl Crazy" was upon the Wodehouse-Bolton libretto.
Scherer has a disarming charisma much like the Bob Hope of his early movies. He gets away with more tomfoolery than most characters because of his impishness. Throw in the fact that Bertie sticks his neck out for his pals rather than himself, and the sympathy factor tips the scales.
Scherer is well-met by Richard Kline's Jeeves. Kline only sings enough to get by in an Episcopal church service, but no matter. Any more would be out of Jeeves' galvanized character. He is Bertie's man, his voice of reason, his sobriety.
Yet Kline is no stiff. He conducts himself with elan, grace and with a countenance that just might break into gales of laughter the minute he punches out of work.
The whole ensemble sparkles in Goodspeed's production. Under Ayckbourn's crisp direction, acting is as well-modulated as Michael O' Flaherty's musical direction. Ayckbourn's talent here lies in his skill at creating grand illusion out of a bare stage. When Bertie is instructed to climb a 20-foot ladder up a five-foot window box, he is as incredulous as his audience. Yet by a devilishly simply twist, it works to Bertie's astonishment and the audience's applause.
Tricks like this, sans the smoke, mirrors and plummeting chandeliers that earmark Webber's other work, are only part of the composer's departure in style. There is nothing operatic about the score. There is no musical scenes, no sung-through sequences, no obvious pilfering from previous composers. Webber's songs serve to express emotional high points, feelings too strong to speak and give the audience a breather amidst the farce. Since there is no plot to speak of, Webber bothers not in advancing it. For the first time it seems that the Knight of Pop has deferred to the material, for "By Jeeves" sounds as musically authentic to its time, place and action as any other musical from the '20s.
Again, if you seek epic production values, overblown emotion and melodrama that would choke a Trojan horse, join the Broadway tourists waiting for the "Phantom of the Opera" box office to open. If you want a subtle diversion, "By Jeeves" is just your dish.
"By Jeeves," adapted by Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber from the P. G. Wodehouse stories, runs through January 19 at Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. Tickets are $33. Call the Goodspeed box office at (860) 873-8668.