Theaters everywhere may be closed due to the global pandemic, but it sure is alive and well on the internet. Thanks to the likes of National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, plays, and musicals are just a few clicks away. Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber has jumped into the fray by allowing many of his concerts and filmed productions to be streamed and shared. Often these productions stream for free, although voluntary charitable donations are accepted for a variety of causes.
The most recent and fleeting trifle to tread the electronic boards is Webber’s souffle of a musical “By Jeeves,” co-created with the prolific British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. As a charitable endeavor, this offering has already raised more than $480,000 for the Actor’s Fund from viewers all over the world. Like previous Webber shows offered on YouTube, audiences only have 48 hours from the live-stream to view the production.
If you want a light, fluffy, tuneful escapade filled with verbal humor and dry British wit, then by hook and by crook, find “By Jeeves.”
This is not the pseudo operatic Webber of Sunset Boulevard or Evita. In style, this one lies somewhere between his early score for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and the old-fashioned British musical from the early 1960s, “Half A Sixpence.” It is a breezy diversion, framed by a church charity concert complicated by a stolen banjo, the silly nature of Bertie Wooster, and the ever-steady presence of his phenomenally efficient butler, Jeeves.
If you want a light, fluffy, tuneful escapade filled with verbal humor and dry British wit, then by hook and by crook, find ‘By Jeeves.’
Fans of P.G. Wodehouse’s delightful stories or Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry’s perfect television adaptation, “Jeeves and Wooster” (from the 1990s), will recognize the names Jeeves and Wooster. These Wodehouse characters and Wooster’s colorfully names society friends are comedic legends in Great Britain. Now the heroes of their very own musical, Jeeves and Wooster’s new vehicle is sweet and endearing, presented on a simple scale. Gone are the dazzling stage effects and soaring melodies with echoes of Puccini. Jeeves has more to do with British music hall and UK-grown shows like Oliver!
Webber has worked with many collaborators over the years and this is a most unusual partnership but one that produced a little gem of a show. Alan Ayckbourn, known for “Bedroom Farce,” “Taking Steps,” “The Norman Chronicles,” and many other tip-top comic plays, provided the book and lyrics to Webber’s light but catchy score for “By Jeeves.” The writer also directed this film adaptation from 2001. (Full disclosure: Webber and Ayckbourn premiered Jeeves in 1975 but it was not a success. The collaborators revised it years later, as “By Jeeves,” and it opened in the West End in 1996. The revamped show headed to the U.S. in 2001.)
As frivolous as this show is, it provides a sprightly vehicle for a few hours. The premise is simple: Bertie Wooster is about to give a banjo recital for charity in a crowded church hall. In this filmed adaptation, the camera gives the viewer the impression they are attending the musicale. Complications ensue when Bertie finds himself, in his words “totally unbanjoed,” with his instrument stolen. While Jeeves arranges for a replacement, the gentleman’s gentleman suggests Wooster recount for the assembled audience the misadventures of his closest friends, some of the most interesting high society ladies and gentlemen in London. Their names alone provide clues as to the nature of the comedic possibilities: Bingo Little, Cyrus Budge III Jr., Gussie Fink-Nottle, and Harold “Stinker” Pinker.
The musical is really just a series of narrated episodes, in turns by Bertie and Jeeves, but they are amusing and bring to life the picturesque romantic entanglements of Bingo, Gussie, and the other denizens of the British upper crust who cross paths with Wooster.
Ayckbourn’s characteristic wit and verbal alacrity are coupled with a farce-like pace, suggesting an amateur theatrical as only true professionals can recreate. The playwright’s well-crafted lyrics float right along with what might be Webber’s lightest score. Take for example the catchy title song, sung by Wooster (John Scherer), Bingo Little (Don Stevenson), and Gussie Fink-Nottle (James Kall) in homage to the reliable butler himself. “By Gad! By Gosh! By heck! By gum! By rabbit’s foot, by Kingdom Come! By all my sainted aunt believes, By George! By Jove! By Jeeves!”
Webber’s score works more as a sum of its parts, without any real stand-alone songs, however, the musical numbers serve the episodic structure and carry the story and silliness forward. It does contain a song with one of Lord Andrew’s loveliest melodies, “Half A Moment.”
The performers all offer crisp diction with posh accents and permeate the stiff-upper-lip spirit which perfectly suits this oh-so-British musical. As Bertie Wooster, Scherer brings to mind a touch of Matthew Broderick mingled with a young Dick Van Dyke, as the charming and hapless protagonist. His easy stage presence, light baritone voice, and nimble feet allow him to shine throughout the production, for which is rarely off stage. As the staid, calm, and ever-loyal butler Jeeves, Martin Jarvis uses understatement and cool reserve as surgical weapons. Jarvis’ Jeeves is a stoic stalwart who contrasts Scherer’s manic charm with ease. They make a great team.
The supporting cast dives into the arch-style with full commitment and there is a strong sense of the late 1920s, which is assisted by the detailed costumes which would be at home on “Downton Abbey.”
“By Jeeves” may not be on the level of such mega-hits as “Phantom of the Opera” or “Cats” but offers a good old, knees up, divertissement of a chamber musical, which ends in a banjo-strumming finale complete with costumes from “The Wizard of Oz.” Wizard of Oz? Don’t ask questions – just watch it and enjoy. And you had better dial it up quickly: “By Jeeves” is only available for 48 hours after it premiered, by Jove.
Running Time: Two hours, 21 minutes, with an intermission – streaming.
“By Jeeves,” a Shows Must Go On streaming presentation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Company and Universal Pictures is available for free on YouTube through Sunday, May 10. Click here for access.