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By Jeeves

Pretty much the definition of a divertissement --- or "diversionary entertainment," in the more awkward English phrase listed in the program --- the musical "By Jeeves" is so relentlessly lightweight it would be positively churlish not to grant it its charms. Performed by a talented cast clearly having a grand old time with the fluty English accents and silly stage business, the show trundles along with a carefully crafted ramshackle flair (oxymoron intended), though when it's over you may be inclined to wonder why the esteemed Mssrs. Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber felt it necessary to drag it out of mothballs, spruce it up and trot it around 20 years after its initial failure. Call it a whim of iron. But there they are, the P.G. Wodehouse tandem of hapless aristo Bertie Wooster (John Scherer) and his unflappable manservant Jeeves (Edward Keith Baker), doing a bit of singing and dancing in between more familiar antics involving love gone awry and much mistaking of identities. The show begins as a banjo recital by Bertie that ends before it begins when the banjo disappears. Jeeves suggests that Bertie and friends reenact one of his memorable misadventures by way of keeping the Little Wittam Church audience happy, and so unfolds the evening's tale.

With:
Cast: John Scherer (Bertie Wooster), Edward Keith Baker (Jeeves), Donna Lynne Champlin (Honoria Glossop), Randy Redd (Bingo Little), Kevin Ligon (Gussie Fink-Nottle), Merwin Goldsmith (Sir Watkyn Bassett), Nancy Anderson (Madeline Bassett), Emily Loesser (Stiffy Byng), Ian Knauer (Harold (Stinker) Pinker), Jonathan Stewart (Cyrus Budge III), Steven Smith (Ozzie Nutledge); Tom Ford, Molly Renfroe, Court Whisman.

Much of the humor depends upon the supposedly impromptu nature of this show-within-a-show, as when an upended dining table and a couple of cardboard boxes are rolled onstage to represent Bertie’s coupe, much to his disgust — which increases when Jeeves humbly suggests he make engine noises to add verisimilitude. (Roger Glossop’s inventive faux-jumble set and props are always clever.) The amateur-hour conceit is carried through the show to generally amusing effect, right down to the finale, in which the cast dons the Church stage’s only available costumes, from “The Wizard of Oz.”

When Bertie gets bogged down in the show’s plot, Jeeves enters to nudge the narrative in the right direction, generally toward the kind of chaos familiar to Wodehouse fans, whence only Jeeves himself can rescue it. As Bertie, Scherer carries the show with aplomb, as Wooster gets caught up in the tale with childish enthusiasm or tries to flee its silliness with a raised eyebrow and a scandalized “I say, Jeeves!” Scherer’s a fine singer, too, and shows real physical grace in a smattering of dance steps. Baker’s Jeeves remains a trifle pallid — though that’s largely written into the role, surprisingly minor here — and won’t displace memories of the BBC’s Stephen Fry.

There’s nary a weak performer among the supporting cast. Merwin Goldsmith is the perfect stuffed old Englishman as Sir Watkyn Bassett; Nancy Anderson is winningly winsome and spoiled as his daughter Madeline, thwarted in love (and she gets the loveliest of Louise Belson’s well-turned costumes); Kevin Ligon and Randy Redd as Bertie’s pals Gussie Fink-Nottle and Bingo Little, respectively, are pleasurably goofy and geeky, respectively.

Lloyd Webber’s contributions are somewhat negligible. Half the tunes seem to be bland love songs that stop the action cold more often than not (“Love’s maze is a mystical wonderland …” runs Ayckbourn’s equally generic lyric in one of the jauntier ones). Only in “The Hallo Song,” a cute spoof of English pleasantries, and perhaps the title tune do Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber provide the kind of witty spin the daffy material deserves. Nor does it help that a handful of the show’s slight tunes are cobbled together to create a finale that only serves to point up the airiness of a show we’ve spent the past 2-1/2 hours indulging.

By Jeeves

Geffen Playhouse; 499 seats; $37.50 top

Production: The Geffen Playhouse presents the Goodspeed Opera House production of a musical in two acts with book and lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Ayckbourn; musical arrangements by David Cullen and Lloyd Webber; musical direction by Steven Smith; musical supervision by Michael O'Flaherty; choreography by Sheila Carter. Set, Roger Glossop.

Crew: Costumes, Louise Belson; lighting, Mick Hughes; sound, Richard Ryan; casting, Warren Pincus & Sarah Hughes; stage manager, Daniel S. Rosokoff. Reviewed March 13; runs through April 20. Running time: 2 hours, 30 min. Opened March 12, 1997

With: Cast: John Scherer (Bertie Wooster), Edward Keith Baker (Jeeves), Donna Lynne Champlin (Honoria Glossop), Randy Redd (Bingo Little), Kevin Ligon (Gussie Fink-Nottle), Merwin Goldsmith (Sir Watkyn Bassett), Nancy Anderson (Madeline Bassett), Emily Loesser (Stiffy Byng), Ian Knauer (Harold (Stinker) Pinker), Jonathan Stewart (Cyrus Budge III), Steven Smith (Ozzie Nutledge); Tom Ford, Molly Renfroe, Court Whisman.

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