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John Scherer and Martin Jarvis in By Jeeves
(Photo: Suellen Fitzsimmons)
It's been smart for some time now to say that P. G. Wodehouse confected comic novels about nothing out of nothing--as if his sole function was to keep entertainment-hungry crowds satiated until Seinfeld came along. The truth is that Wodehouse, one of literature's surpassing stylists, wrote in the gayest, most off-hand manner about something tremendously significant: wit and witlessness, and how the latter can cause irreparable damage when the former is not brought to bear. In creating Bertie Wooster, the quintessential English twit, and his unflappable manservant Jeeves, Wodehouse was indulging in that standard occupation of most British writers--namely, weighing in on the class system. A sly old fox who eventually chose to live in America, the author pointed out (in something like 90 hilarious volumes) how upper-crust Englishmen were regularly propped up by their servants.

The other thing it's important to remember about Wodehouse is that he had a notable career in musical comedy; in fact, he was involved with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton in developing a number of seminal musicals. The most famous of these--Leave It to Jane (1917), adapted from The College Widow by the equally brilliant stylist George Ade--is generally conceded to be one of those watershed works, right along with Show Boat and Oklahoma! For the saucy Jane, Wodehouse wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the book, and audiences cheered.

Given this history, one wonders what Wodehouse would have made of By Jeeves, the new musical adapted from his works (most particularly, The Code of the Woosters). Though the names of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn appear on the title page of the Playbill, the musical looks as if it's been jerry-rigged by a team of Berties with no assistance from Jeeves. It's all witlessness, no wit.

The redoubtable Lloyd Webber and Ayckbourn have been tinkering with a Wooster-Jeeves treatment since 1975; the current version is the one mounted first in England a few years ago. The creators handle the transformation from page to stage by framing Bertie's adventures--with flighty, fumbling friends Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, Bingo Little, Honoria Glossop, and Stiffy Byng--as an improvisation undertaken in a church hall during a fundraiser that's gone awry. Missing the banjo with which he was planning to accompany his own vocal performance of songs to aid the rebuilding of the church's steeple, Bertie (John Scherer) heeds Jeeves (Martin Jarvis) and chooses to divert the audience instead by recounting a journey he made to Totleigh Towers. There, various women with whom he's been associated are falling in love with various men with whom he's been associated. He recalls how he was forced to pretend not to be himself, for various reasons; the job of untangling the knots falls to Jeeves. The deft machinations of that invaluable gentleman's gentleman save the day, of course, leaving the characters ready to don Wizard of Oz costumes (?) and join Bertie for his banjo concert.

Yes, it's a typical Wodehouse plot, unnecessarily complicated by that confusing bookend device. Whereas in Wodehouse the plot is usually decipherable, in By Jeeves there are times when the mistaken-identity complications are a daunting riddle for the audience. Characters bang around the stage and through the dozen-plus swinging doors and two curtained openings without any redeeming amusement. Who knows what's afoot...and why should anyone care? The result is a figurative throwing-up-of-hands on the audience's part and a collective tuning out.

Nothing really helps matters for very long--not the work of composer Lloyd Webber or librettist-lyricist-director Ayckbourn or the tireless (and often tiresome) cast. Lloyd Webber tries to get the audience to hum his melodies as they leave the theater in his usual manner, by reprising them in bulk during the curtain call. The title song has a perky tune and cute words, and there's a nice enough ballad called "Half a Moment." The others are forgettable even as they're being sung--all, that is, but the song that recalls the great Lorenz Hart-Richard Rodgers standard "Isn't It Romantic?"

Don Stephenson, John Scherer, and James Kall in By Jeeves
(Photo: Suellen Fitzsimmons)
The deficiencies of Ayckbourn's work on Jeeves are even more astounding. Here's a theater man who's almost as prolific and as accomplished as Wodehouse, but he's at sea in both the bookwriting and the directing of this show. Playing thin-blooded, thick-headed, manor-house-dwelling Brits takes more than constant mugging, but that's evidently what Ayckbourn has encouraged his actors to do; rarely have so many arched eyebrows, drooped mouths, and attenuated wails been seen and heard on the same stage. Perhaps Ayckbourn wanted something subtler from usually reliable performers like Don Stephenson, Sam Tsoutsouvas, and Donna Lynne Champlin, but he didn't get it. (Champlin sings a ditty called "That Was Nearly Us" without making a single word intelligible.) Of the supporting minions--including Becky Watson, Ian Knauer, and James Kall--only Emily Loesser as Madeline Bassett indicates that she's read Wodehouse and understands his humor.

Martin Jarvis, the one import, certainly knows Wodehouse and gives a polished performance as Jeeves; he's all noncommittal looks and elegantly deferential "Sir"s, arms held stiffly at his sides. But for reasons that only Ayckbourn might be able to explain, Jarvis is much less frequently present than one would expect, given that he's the title character of the piece. And when this Jeeves is on stage, he's often there only to prod Bertie's faulty memory or to give him directions. Jarvis never actually sings, but he does deliver one fast-paced spoken passage to music. As Bertie, John Scherer does the most consistent hamming among the cast, perhaps because he's in the middle of the action so often--and also, perhaps, because he's trying to pump air into a hopelessly deflated tire. Whether he clocks a single genuine laugh is debatable. He is, though, given the one line that sounds like Wodehouse: He says he feels like an axe that has just been poled.

By Jeeves has costumes by Louise Belson, lighting by Mick Hughes, sound design by Richard Ryan, choreography (such as it is) by Sheila Carter, musical direction by Michael O'Flaherty, and sets by Roger Glossop. They've all done their work adequately and even a bit more than adequately, but to no avail. The only thing left to say about By Jeeves is "Bye, Jeeves!"

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