Wednesday, September 22, 2004

By Jeeves (Beck Center)

‘BY JEEVES’ fun, fun, fun at Beck

Sometimes it’s good to go to the theatre and just smile, laugh, even howl. If that’s what you are in the mood for, rush right over to Beck Center to see their creatively staged and well-performed ‘BY JEEVES.’

The musical ‘BY JEEVES’ has had a checkered past. Alan Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber of “Phantom of the Opera” fame, first wrote the musical in 1975. It became the only flop on either's record at that time. They served up a fully revised version in London 20 years later, after both had reached theatrical stardom. In 1996 it arrived on Broadway after some out of town tryouts, but fell flat.

In reality, it’s not surprising that the show doesn’t work well in a traditional professional setting. The script calls for a small, intimate space. Broadway and London theatres tend to be large. But the Beck Center is a cozy British musical hall size setting that is absolutely perfect for the work.

Another requirement for the script is an understanding of farce. Americans, in general, don’t do farce well. But, again, Beck has a plus going for it. Director Michael Rogaliner has a feel for the pacing of farce which he has conveyed to the cast.

Based on characters created by P. G. Wodehouse, the plot is a convoluted musical within a musical. Basically, the story centers on Bertie being invited to play his banjo at a church fund-raiser. Just before the concert is to begin, it's discovered the instrument has been stolen. To stall for time until a new one can be obtained, the audience has to be pacified. Out of his desperation -- and Jeeves' inspiration --a tale of mistaken identity, thwarted romance and the triumph of true love is portrayed. It all builds up to a finale with the entire cast dressed as characters from "The Wizard of Oz." Yes, Dorothy, the yellow brick wall, the scare crow. Honest. Would I make this up?

The show depends on the audience not only believing what is going on, but being swept up in the ridiculousness. Feigning doesn’t work well with farce, reality does. Again, Beck wins here. Dana Hart makes for a fine Jeeves. He plays the master manipulator with proper aloofness. He also sings well.

Larry Nehring plays the role of Bertie with a Danny Kaye flair. He not only looks and sounds like Kaye, but uses his face in very Kaye-like ways.

The rest of the cast is equal to the challenge. The production skips right along, carrying a giggling audience right with them.

Lloyd Webber's music is well played by a small orchestra led by musical director Larry Goodpaster. Those used to Webber’s plush musical sounds might be surprised by the fun, cute, clever, hokey music in this show. How can a musical with songs entitled, “It’s a Pig,” “The Hallo Song” and “Travel Hopefully” not be a delight?

Don McBride’s scenic design doesn’t add much to the proceedings but Jeffrey Smart’s costumes are fine.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: How can a show that is based on the broadest of British farce, formulated by a director who has a total understanding the format, and has a talented cast that has perfect timing, not be fun? ‘BY JEEVES’ is a go see by jove!