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LETTERS TO EDITOR
Les Gutman's summary of By Jeeves during its DC run remains on the mark four years later, as does Alan Ayckbourn's quoted explanation for remaining loyal to the concept of making a musical out of P.G. Wodehouse's stories about an uppercrust, fatuous Englishman named Bertie Wooster and the butler who is ever and resourcefully at his beck and call. John Scherer is still on hand as a champion upper class young "chump." Martin Jarvis, now plays his butler and by jove, Jarvis is a jovially jolly Jeeves (the dialogue and lyrics beg this sort of Peter-Piper-ate-a-picked-pepper jokey alliterative description).
By Jeeves, like Mamma Mia!, originated in London. But while Mamma Mia! is also a lightweight, leave-them-smiling show which has traveled quite a bit before landing on Broadway, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves have encountered a lot more pebbles in their journey to Broadway than Donna Sheridan and her daughter Sophie. As just plain Jeeves it premiered and flopped with a resounding thud in 1975. Twenty-one years later a scaled down version, re-titled By Jeeves, met with a kinder welcome in London. A Godspeed Opera House production led to several other performances at American theaters, including the one at the Kennedy Center that Les Gutman, then a DC resident, reviewed. Les liked it for its silly wit and charm, but felt that moving the show to Broadway would ruin it by forcing it to " be too big and too important for its own good" Fortunately, for Ayckbourn, Webber and the baker's dozen sized cast and small band, New York's one Broadway theater that's hospitable to such chamber musicals, the Helen Hayes (-right down the block from Webber's long-running mega-hit The Phantom of the Opera) became available.
Except for Marvin Jarvis, a true-blue Brit, the actors are all Americans having a ball being very, very upper crust British. Steve Wilson plays the villain and only American character, jelly tycoon Cyrus Budge III (a nice bow by Ayckbourn to American audiences if it weren't spoiled by a lapse in appropriateness and good taste when Cyrus threatens to " lynch" one of his rivals for the hand of Madeline Basset).
Master farceur Ayckbourn has concocted enough misunderstandings and mixed-up identities to maintain a constant flow of traffic through the many entrances and exits -- besides the two level church set's numerous swinging doors and two draped doorways, the theate's emergency exits at the foot of the stage as well as the aisles are used. The details are indeed too silly to be sorted out in an orderly fashion. Suffice it to say that the audience is part of the show-within-a-show-within-a-show.
The main show within is a benefit to raise money for a new church steeple. The banjo-playing guest star is of course none other than that ditzy dandy, Bertie Wooster. When the banjo mysteriously disappears, Bertie must hold the audience with anecdotes. With the unfailingly unruffled Jeeves at his side, he then replays how he became embroiled in the romances of several equally dim-witted members of privileged class which result in mistaken identities, a fake burglary in a pig mask (don't ask!). The names alone are enough to make you gigle (Honoria Glossop, Gussie, Fink-Nottle, Bingo Little, Stiffy Byng and Harold "Stinker" Pinker). By the inevitably end end Bertie gets his banjo back for a rousing finale that includes an Elvis spoof as well as the whole cast rather inexplicable but hilariously dressed up as Wizard of Oz characters.
The entire ensemble navigates its way through the comic maze, but the evening belongs to the two principals. Scherer and Jarvis are perfect foils for each other, the charmingly inept and Jarvis never losing his drolly unsmiling cool. Louise. Louise Belson's costumes add to the visual punch of the performances.
The show has just enough songs to call itself a musical and he most pleasant surprise is the music. Ayckbourn's lyrics and Lloyd Webber's light and jaunty tunes are as well-matched as Bertie and Jeeves. No overcooked reprises, just a handful of easy listening tunes with sprightly refrains like the title song's "By George, by jove, by Jeeves". The one big ballad, "Half a Moment" could be considered a jarring departure from the overall score -- but, within the context of Scherer's funny Elvis gyrations and the Wizard of Oz- encore it comes across as a hilarious bit of Lloyd Webber spoofing his own more poperatic excesses. Roger Glossop's staging is inventive without being elaborate.
This tea and crumpets style of class-conscious farce is not for everyone and I'll admit that I found the first and weaker act slow going. The producers of the show have wisely booked it for a limited run since its specialized charm is unlikely to have the staying power of its neighbors, The Phantom of the Opera and The Producers. If it's an inducement, as long as the weather permits, you'll be served free tea and biscuits outside the theater, though not, dash it, by our man Jeeves.
LINKS TO SHOWS MENTIONED
By Jeeves in DC
The Phantom of the Opera
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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