The Butler to the Rescue, Again
The giggles and snorts induced by P. G. Wodehouse, the master of dry spoofery, have everything to do with the language of propriety applied to the presumption of privilege.
John Scherer, left, as Bertie Wooster
and Martin Jarvis as Jeeves in "By Jeeves."
Wodehouse's best-known works are, of course, the tales of a harmless and helpless wealthy idler, Bertie Wooster, and his brilliant manipulator of a valet, Jeeves. It is Bertie who narrates in a voice that is delicious with honest self-appraisal and cluelessness and implicitly conveys the author's bland nonsurprise at the foolishness of the feckless rich. The Jeeves stories are piffle of great sophistication: in their recounting of ill-advised infatuations and foolish wagers, it isn't the plot or even the characters that make you laugh so much, but the narrative tone.
That adult tone is precisely what is missing from "By Jeeves," the well-traveled musical adaptation of Bertie Wooster's adventures, which opened on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater yesterday. The book and lyrics (and direction) are by the playwright Alan Ayckbourn, and the music is by Andrew Lloyd Webber, neither of whom is known for pea-brained schoolboy humor.
But what they have come up with is a slapstick farce reliant on routine stumblebum business with rare forays into original jokery (and only one episode of inspired lunacy), unenlivened by a score of 13 formula songs.
John Scherer plays Bertie with an attractive and sputterless comic ease reminiscent of a young Bob Hope in road-movie mode, even if he does exhaust the mannerisms of the nonplused. And as Jeeves, Martin Jarvis delivers the expected stiff spine and arid drollery, though you may find yourself wishing for one more layer of elan, la John Gielgud in "Arthur," and Mr. Jarvis does swallow a few syllables in a set-piece recitation of doggerel, Sir Alan's winking tribute to Gilbert and Sullivan. In any case, around them the show is more of a kick in the behind than an arched eyebrow, a strain of English comedy already plumbed too deeply by Benny Hill. Wodehouse lovers be forewarned.
"By Jeeves" has its roots in an earlier collaboration between Sir Alan and Lord Lloyd Webber a quarter-century ago, and its production history dates to 1996, since which time it has been seen in England and in several cities in this country, including Washington, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. Produced by Goodspeed Musicals, which presented the show in East Haddam, Conn., five years ago, it is pocket-size by the composer's mega-musical standards.
With a cast of 13, a 6-member band, purposely makeshift props that are frequently (and self-consciously) derided in the dialogue and a single two-tiered set (by a designer with the Wodehousian name Roger Glossop) that serves as a church hall and a wood-paneled estate house and is equipped with plenty of doors for rapid-fire entrances and exits, the show was mounted for a reported $1.9 million, a relative pittance. But it still required an emergency cash infusion from Lord Lloyd Webber to open on schedule when investors pulled out in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Certainly "By Jeeves" is entertainment of the candied sort we allegedly need at the moment, but it is a show with little regard for original diversion. Rather it has the feel of a project that diverted its creators, who put up the beloved Wodehouse as a challenge to their powers and presented the results to their good old pals at the men's club. Could a show be cobbled together from Wodehouse's characters and without a lot of techno-magic or an orchestra?
It does feel cobbled, particularly by Sir Alan, who has tried to replicate Wodehouse's narrative remove with an unwieldy frame that involves Bertie as the banjo-playing main attraction at a church hall fund-raiser. When his banjo turns up missing, he is urged by Jeeves to entertain everyone instead by telling a story, whose enactment, with Jeeves helping out as a deitylike narrator, becomes the main action of the play. Even if you can parse it all, that's a lot of mechanical hoisting to go through just to penetrate to a heart of nonsense.
Nonsense succeeds when it is inspired, but in "By Jeeves" it is merely built, albeit by a skilled carpenter. The story Sir Alan has Bertie tell involves a three-way trade of identities, a network of wayward romances and a garden maze º a piece of cake for an old hand at theatrical rebus-making like the playwright.
As he did in his tour de force twins, "House" and "Garden," which are performed simultaneously with the same cast and characters, he has, in effect, had his hands tied behind his back and still managed to sew together a plot that works. The handicap here is that he was working with borrowed characters. The price he pays is that the old Wodehouse standbys he appropriates, archetypal variants even in their original forms, must all be reduced to a level of absolute stupidity on the stage or the plot pyrotechnics couldn't survive.
Those who share the idiot level of intellect include the ever-eager-for- romance Bingo Little, the obsessed herpetologist Gussie Fink-Nottle (his specialty is newts), the Amazonian heiress Honoria Glossop (no relation, as far as I know, to the set designer), the easily enraged magistrate Sir Watkyn Bassett, and his ditzy daughter, Madeline. The result, among other things, is that Gussie and Bingo are indistinguishable as personalities.
And though, as Wodehouse proves, narrow-mindedness can be funny, social blindness can be funny, nitwittedness can be funny, self-justification can be funny and vacuousness can be funny, stone stupidity is boring. An audience gets tired of feeling blanket ridicule, and the cast doesn't entirely help. Sam Tsoutsouvas has a cartoony bluster as Bassett and Becky Watson makes Madeline amusingly into a British Betty Boop, but Donna Lynne Champlin plays Honoria, Bertie's romantic stalker, with the required overzealous swagger but no unusual colors, and James Kall as Gussie and Don Stephenson as Bingo are insupportably and childishly dopey.
Lord Lloyd Webber's songs serve as more of an accompaniment to the book than the other way around; this really is a play with music. And his fans will be rewarded by the simple sugars of his repetitious trademark melodies and tinka-tinka rhythms; others will find the score by the composer of "Cats" and "Sunset Boulevard" just as dull but not as grand, bordering occasionally on nursery rhymes.
There is one payoff for sticking with the show through its laborious travails, however, and that is a climactic comic number called "It's a Pig!," which matches an arch Lloyd Webber ditty with a preposterous plot development, arranged, of course, by Jeeves. It involves Bertie climbing into Honoria's bedroom window wearing a pig mask and being chased around the Bassett estate by the entire cast, who are clad in a variety of silly pajamas. It's the loopy bravado, perhaps, that pushes the number from trying to irresistible, but in any case this is the single sequence of "By Jeeves" that might have given even Wodehouse himself a chuckle.
Book and lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn; music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Based on the "Jeeves" stories by P. G. Wodehouse. Directed by Mr. Ayckbourn; choreography by Sheila Carter. Sets by Roger Glossop; costumes by Louise Belson; lighting by Mick Hughes; sound by Richard Ryan; hair design by Bobby H. Grayson; music supervision and direction by Michael O'Flaherty; music coordinator, John Miller; music arrangements by David Cullen and Mr. Lloyd Webber; production supervisors, O'Donovan & Bradford; production stage manager, Daniel S. Rosokoff; general manager, the Charlotte Wilcox Company. Presented by Goodspeed Musicals. At the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, Manhattan.
WITH: John Scherer (Bertie Wooster), Martin Jarvis (Jeeves), Donna Lynne Champlin (Honoria Glossop), Don Stephenson (Bingo Little), James Kall (Gussie Fink-Nottle), Sam Tsoutsouvas (Sir Watkyn Bassett), Becky Watson (Madeline Bassett), Emily Loesser (Stiffy Byng), Ian Knauer (Harold "Stinker" Pinker), Steve Wilson (Cyrus Budge III) and Tom Ford, Molly Renfroe and Court Whisman (Other Personages).