'By Jeeves': a Cheery Celebration
NEW YORK þþ For those who like watercress sandwiches, jam instead of jelly on their scones and a good, strong cup of tea, Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber have devised the perfect Anglophile entertainment þ "By Jeeves."
This modest, yet merry little musical, which opened Sunday at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, is a smile-producing celebration of English eccentricity. It's based on those classic P.G. Wodehouse characters, the inept, upper-crust Bertie Wooster and his ever-so-resourceful manservant, Jeeves.
Ayckbourn, one of Britain's most prolific playwrights, is best-known for his cleverly plotted and often fiendishly complicated comedies. Here, he has devised a musical within a musical that's sweetly circuitous.
Bertie has been invited to play his banjo at a church fund-raiser, but just before the concert is to begin, it's discovered the instrument has been stolen. To stall for time until a new one can be obtained, Bertie must pacify the crowd, meaning the audience at the Helen Hayes.
Out of his desperation þ and Jeeves' inspiration þ comes a cheerfully convoluted tale of mistaken identity, romance thwarted and the triumph of true love. Ayckbourn, who also directed, parades an assortment of Wodehouse oddballs across the stage, each with a typically apt name, such as Gussie Fink-Nottle, Harold "Stinker" Pinker, Stiffy Byng and Honoria Glossop.
Part of the fun in "By Jeeves" is the makeshift nature of Bertie's presentation. Boxes are turned into an open-air roadster; a large yellow ball, hoisted on a rope by a cast member, becomes the moon, and stalks of sunflowers are passed out to theatergoers in the front row to add atmosphere to a particularly bucolic love scene.
Theatergoers with a low tolerance for whimsy may wish to avoid these goings-on, and, admittedly, it takes a while to warm up to this conceit. Yet once the giggles start, they rarely subside, building to a boisterous finale that has the entire cast dressed as characters from "The Wizard of Oz."
Lloyd Webber's gift for melody has not deserted him here. His music, played by a tiny orchestra perched above the stage, has an old-fashioned grace, a tinkling 1920s feel that dovetails nicely with the giddy story. One ballad, "Half a Moment," salvaged from an earlier incarnation of the show that flopped in London in 1975, ranks high among Lloyd Webber's most appealing songs. Ayckbourn's lyrics are intelligent, often witty, a rarity for a Lloyd Webber score.
Most members of the Broadway cast are veterans of other productions of the show. John Scherer, who portrays Jeeves, has been with the musical since its American premiere in Connecticut in 1996.
The actor has a round, wide-eyed face, perfect for projecting the genial bewilderment that seems to accompany Bertie as he muddles through life. More important, he is a song-and-dance man, qualities that are put to good use when a banjo finally does arrive, and Bertie can give an abbreviated version of his concert.
Martin Jarvis, a model of the dry, deadpan look, makes a marvelous Jeeves. He exudes a crisp efficiency that doesn't condescend to Bertie's ditherings. It's the relationship between Bertie and Jeeves that should hold the proceedings together, and the two performers carry off this master-servant comradeship with ease.
Ayckbourn skillfully introduces several typical Wodehouse females. There's the horsey and hardy Honoria (an enthusiastic Donna Lynne Champlin); Madeline, the breathless blonde with a baby-doll voice (Becky Watson) and the supremely self-confident Stiffy (Emily Loesser).
Except for Jeeves, the men are all bumblers supreme, whether American jelly magnate Cyrus Budge III (Steve Wilson) or a trio of love-sodden Brits (James Kall, Don Stephenson and Ian Knauer).
It's refreshing to having the composer of such physically þ and emotionally þ large shows as "The Phantom of the Opera," "Evita" and "Sunset Boulevard" thinking small. Small can count for quite a lot when it is accompanied by melody, wit and charm, three qualities readily present in "By Jeeves."