Fringe Online 2020
The 2001 production is directed by Alan Ayckbourn with Set and Costumes by Roger Glossop, Lighting Mick Hughes, and Choreography Sheila Carter. Music Director F Wade Russo. Musical Supervisor Michael O’Flaherty, David Cullen and Lloyd Webber orchestrate, with original sound design by Lee McCutcheon. Key Hair Anita Miles, Sandy Sokolowski.
For Godspeed Opera House Producer Michael P Price
Film directed by Nick Morris
Produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Executive Musical co-Production manager Roberta J Pazdro. Assistant to Aaln Ayckbourn Heather Stoney
Some might again experience buffering issues, not present in the first two broadcasts, which might be down to the uptake. Just before the interval it became on first viewing more buffering opera than opera buffa. For a day only. Till May 10th (19.00).
The sixth The Shows Must Go On has been eagerly awaited by some. In 1975 the apparently epic combo of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn spectacularly failed to produce more than a turkey: Jeeves.
It was Tim Rice’s idea but he backed out and Ayckbourn who found musicals ‘damn boring’ hoped this might be more interesting. Especially as original author P.G. Wodehouse, 93, gave it his blessing just before he died later that year.
Not quite in the way either imagined. For one thing Ayckbourn’s book plays perfectly well without the music. And honouring P.G, Wodehouse’s material too much it opened four and a half hours long. No wonder it initially flopped, even trimmed!
Famously crashing musicals and plays get adopted as wounded children by their creators. So Lloyd Webber craves our interest, making a special point of it in his general intro.. For one thing he rewrote it in 1996 as By Jeeves. This is the 2001 Canadian-released film with that 1996 Broadway cast and makes the best possible case for By Jeeves!
So why did it fail, and how does it fare here? It starts late for one thing, with much pseudo am-dram business and preamble in a village hall, setting-up of scenarios, so we back into the limelight and knock it over.
Lloyd Webber’s a post-Puccinian romantic and the idiom here is 1920s. Of course we might smartly recall that previous musical, all of five years earlier – Herod’s song’s with its delicious ‘prove to me you’re no fool/walk across my swimming pool’. That G&T acid jazz pastiche would have been welcome if a bit Studebaker.
John Scherer is quite a sane, less goofy Bertie Wooster, admirable in characterisation with a fine voice, Martin Jarvis’ Jeeves is vintage Jarvis-Jeeves with a non-singing part.
Of others in the cast honours must go to Donna Lynne Champlin’s the let’s say terrifically-voiced Honoria Glossop. In fact Champlin is the finest singer here. She doesn’t look like Brunhilde but she can give it welly and her voice, wonderfully stentorian, is pure blackmail.
Set in a boy’s reformatory and what passes as a very rich village hall (set’s a lush country house all panelled with a gallery above), Bertie’s dramatizing his past life as his ukelele – Jeeves says – has gone missing. Another will arrive just in time for the end of the show: two hours. There’s relief. Mmm. So Bertie must improvise. The Code of the Woosters must be upheld.
Bertie recalls when he’s up before a magistrate and takes his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle’s name to get out of trouble and so Gussie reciprocates. Things get complex when an old flame Stiffy or Stephanie announces her engagement to Bertie so he has to go to a country house to squash it flat: a cunning plan of Stiffy who wants him for a farcical jape to help her to her real beau – the kind he backs into all the time: a fake burglary. So Bertie and Gussie find themselves both headed there in Bertie’s jalopy, Jeeves travelling down separately. And on the way Bertie knocks down another friend Bingo Little.
Things explode into life 40 minutes in after a couple of ‘Code of the Woosters’ spracht pieces, with Honoria’s entrance and rekindled passion for poor Bertie as Gussie who declares he’s in love with her skulks in the boot of the car, trying not to cry.
Bertie has no desire to rekindle an old romance but friendship frays –still, Honoria’s number is the best so far.
It’s getting crowded and you get the point, not least because all three men take each other’s names for farcically complex reasons. This isn’t a scenario for a musical. It’s a fine farce. And Lloyd Webber empties out the big sound to allow intricacy full play. Alas the music goes to an extent too. Siren Madeline Bassett rescues it with lyric languor.
Then there’s the introduction of sexy Cyrus Budge III Junior, raspberry jam tycoon and siren Madeline Bassett as well as Stiffy makes a fascinating country house melange, not least because Bertie introduces himself to Cyrus by his real name, so Gussie has to learn to switch identity too (and Honoria’s smitten by the man’s jam sessions). Their ‘How d’you do?’ trio is exciting tango-prancing and rather good. It had seemed the only numbers of any note would be sung by women.
‘When love rings the bell’ Bertie’s consolatory song to assure Madeleine becomes a delicious little duet. Alas she gets carried away and dreams of Bertie again. Just as Gus arrives. So Cyrus who challenges him to a duel for using a girl, and so on, even with Jeeves in attendance things are going wrong. This kind of light-touch musicality works best. Bertie’s remonstrance to Jeeves ‘What’ve You Got to Say Jeeves’ is one of the best patter-duets of the show, and there’s quite a few. Jarvis here is delicious in cascades of pattered platitudes.
Another duet – Stiffy and the Vicar – who she’s really after – is rather sweet but constrained by being in slightly sent-up character that might have been overcome with a big tune. It was possible in Thoroughly Modern Millie and something of that cod magic would have lifted this undeniably cluttered scenario into a gem. Still when Bertie disguises himself in a pig mask a good G&S ensemble ‘There’s A Pig!’ ensues.
After everything’s unravelled and couples ravelled up that ukelele arrives and ‘Banjo Boy’ is probably the best number in the show.
James Kall gives the right degree of haplessness though not total wetness to newt-loving Gussie Fink-Nottle. Emily Loesser lends Stiffy Byng a comic darkness as a scheme who can blackmail in a different way to the oratorically-edged Honoria: she’s a deadly romantic who might go off the deep end. Heath Lamberts’ Rumpolian Sir Watkin Bassett, Becky Watson’s lyric soprano Madeline Bassett compares well with Champlin in a more sheerly romantic mode, and Ian Knauer’s characterful as the terribly nice vicar – Stiffy’s love-interest Harold ‘Stinker’ Pinker, of whom Sir Watkin doesn’t approve.
The other identity-confused Drone Club member Bingo Little is well taken by Don Stephenson though has less to do than fall about with some hurt-looking dignity. F Wade Russo is charismatic pianist and musical director though at his piano takes the courtesy name of Ozzy Nutledge. Handsome dark horse Cyrus Budge III Junior is taken in heldentenor style by Steve Wilson, and the ensemble is completed with Tom Ford, Molly Rennfroe, Court Whisman.
It’s minor Lloyd Webber but a miraculous compression and polish at 2 hours 22. The opening theme reprised does sound a little like ‘Norwegian Wood.’ The reprise of ‘By Jeeves!’ and the big numbers including ‘There’s a Pig’ and back to ‘Banjo Boy’ and postlude sets the seal on a thoroughly enjoyable period-style musical.