How light is the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Alan Ayckbourn musical now playing at 1st Stage? Imagine a chiffon pie, covered with whipped cream and meringue. It is lighter than that. Imagine a field of chipmunks floating on helium balloons. It is lighter than that. Imagine The Unbearable Lightness of Being, made not only bearable but turned into a gigglefest. It is lighter than that.
By Jeeves is a story about aristocratic nincompoops. No, wait – I’m giving nincompoopery a bad name. This is the story of the eight mental dwarves, the idylls of the idle rich, loosely shepherded by the protean Jeeves (Matt Dewberry), valet to the story’s dimbulb-in-chief, Bertie Wooster (Edward C. Nagle). Bertie and his playmates are jobless, but they have gobs of money with which to get into mischief. Bertie, whose chief characteristic aside from his stupidity is his aversion to the thought of marriage, is probably the brightest of the lot, which is like being the hippest guy in the SEC. When he and his buddies Gussie (Michael Shenefelt) and Bingo (Joshua Rosenblum) sing “our collective IQ/Is almost forty-two” Bertie can probably claim as many as twenty of those points.
But because this came from the mind of P.G. Wodehouse, we view the antics of the assembled numbskulled aristocrats with a certain exasperated affection – as does Jeeves. Bertie has promised to entertain us with an evening of banjo playing, but when the instrument shows up missing (Who would have stolen it? Bertie wants to know, and when Jeeves’ replies “a music lover,” Bertie’s look of incomprehension explains all we need to know about the relationship between the two men), Bertie instead tells us a tale out of his own calamitous life.
It seems that when Bertie was once hauled before the Magistrate (Tom Prescott) for some minor vandalism offense, he identified himself using the name of a friend, Gussie Fink-Nottle (Shenefelt) so that his own would not be besmirched by a conviction. Gussie returns the favor by borrowing Bertie’s name – and impressive London flat – to court the Magistrate’s daughter, the flibbertigibbet Madeline (Allison Leigh Corke), whose rapturous baby-talk might have been the inspiration for all those “Love is….” cartoons. In the meantime, the Magistrate’s ward Stiffy Byng (Ashley Batten) has, wholly without justification, announced her own engagement to Bertie in the Times, thus imperiling Fink-Nottle, who is posing as Bertie. Her purpose: to drag Bertie down to the Magistrate’s place, for some plot involving the Rev. Harold “Stinker” Pinker (Paul R. Scanlan). Once in town, Bertie must pose as Fink-Nottle, until circumstances require him to redeploy himself under the name of another old friend, Bingo Little – until the real Bingo (Joshua Rosenblum) shows up, pursuing an old flame of Bertie’s, the Amazonian Honoria Glossop (Katie Nigsch-Fairfax), whose personal obsession is protecting hedgehogs by building tunnels under the roadways for them.
Oh, what a web we weave, when first we practice to deceive! And especially when we commit identity theft with people named Bingo and Fink-Nottle. Justice requires that such Shakespearean mix-ups be set to music, and so it is done by the very best: Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics and libretto by the great Alan Ayckbourn. Webber glazes this show with a music-hall feel, eschewing the grand operatic sweep which characterizes most of his work for sweetness, laughter, and good times. I should hasten to add that it is a high-quality music hall that would play these numbers; some of them – I’m thinking specifically of “Love’s Mazes” – would add to any musical, no matter how ambitious or complex. But much more typical are numbers like “The Halloo Song”, a bit of inspired madness which could fit in only with the unique bizarreness which is By Jeeves.
Comedy is nothing without comic timing, and in By Jeeves the timing is as precise as an atomic clock. Notwithstanding the cast’s inexperience (four actors: Nagle, Rosenblum, Scanlan and Prescott are making their professional debuts), they are diamond-sharp. Dewberry’s Jeeves wanders on and off stage as Nagle, Shenefelt and Rosenblum sing the title song; he must arrive precisely when the last note is sung, and he does. The Stinker’s hideous clumsiness must seem completely natural, and Scanlan makes it so; his final confrontation with the American jelly magnate Cyrus Budge III, Jr. (JB Tadena), though it follows a familiar routine, must seem fresh and new, and it is. What’s more, Nigsch-Fairfax and Corke have gorgeous voices, and Nagel is very creditable vocally, particularly in the tenor range.
Heroic performances bespeak a heroic director; this one is Stevie Zimmerman, with Jeffrey Newberger the Musical Director and choreography by Jordan Gehley. The result is comedy that is consistently sparkling, with gusts up to thrilling.
But here’s the best thing I can say about By Jeeves: the show I attended was sold out, and ticket demand is heavy. I recommend that you reserve now.
Adapted by Alan Ayckbourn from the novels of P.G. Wodehouse
Lyrics by Ayckbourn; music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Stevie Zimmerman
Musical Direction by Jeffry Newberger
Choreography by Jordan Gehley
Produced by 1st Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission