The Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "By Jeeves," which opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater, is a modest little musical.
It also has, as Winston Churchill once remarked of a political opponent, "quite a lot to be modest about."
But then, Churchill sadly underestimated that particular opponent, and there are very real charms to this tuneful and exquisitely accurate exposition of P.G. Wodehouse's affectionate if satiric take on England's blathering, chattering classes in the halcyon days before World War II.
I must admit, I have never been a particular admirer of Wodehouse, or his iconic creations, that silly ass Bertie Wooster and his imperturbable manservant, the omniscient Jeeves.
They are an acquired taste I have never acquired. However, those two pampered aristocrats of the English theater, Sir Alan Ayckbourn and Lord Lloyd-Webber, have clearly done a great job in translating the right style, place and period.
The history of "By Jeeves" has been notoriously spotty - it started in 1975 with a flop musical called "Jeeves," and even this totally rewritten version has had a long and rocky path to Broadway.
Curiously, "By Jeeves" is by no means typical of either Ayckbourn, who specializes in comedy a great deal darker than this, or Lloyd Webber, who has made his name with extravagant pop operas replete with falling chandeliers and grand staircases.
But here we have a genial little chamber musical - 13 in the cast and only six musicians. The sole setting is an English village church hall, and the story is a seemingly improvised piece of Woosterism, full of mixed purposes and muddled identities, all stage managed by Jeeves.
Now, if you are in a manic Anglophiliac mood - the kind that has you waking up craving for Marmite and crumpets - this show is for you. If you don't even know what Marmite and crumpets are, it quite possibly isn't.
It is as much a play with music as a musical, but Lloyd Webber's songs are very easy on the ear, and reveal a sheer, easy, almost transparent lyricism he hasn't shown since his woefully underestimated "Aspects of Love."
Ayckbourn has carpentered the book with immaculate craftsmanship, but the surprise is the wit and felicity of his lyrics.
These are absolutely the best lyrics Lloyd Webber has ever had to work with; it is a collaboration that could have an enormous future. It is as if a Sullivan had finally caught up with a Gilbert, the right wily wordsmith.
Ayckbourn is also - apart from his skills as a great comic playwright - a marvelous director, and he has staged "By Jeeves" with a deeply careful casualness that neatly suggests but never copies the frantic air of painfully amateur theatricals.
He has also gotten some very decently Anglicized performances from his cast. The one actual English actor, Martin Jarvis, makes a perfect Jeeves, acting with the placing of an eyebrow, the curl of a lip and the vocal art of acidulous articulation.
But all the rest are blitheringly delightful, particularly the show's kingpin, the exuberant John Scherer, the bumbling, banjo-playing upholder of the family code who manages to make Wooster saucy.
My only trouble with "By Jeeves" is that so much, in fact and spirit, is by Wodehouse. And the irony is that Wodehouse himself, teamed with Guy Bolton, wrote the books for many dazzling vintage Broadway musicals.
Of course, they were not encumbered with the cheerily asinine Bertie, were they?
The giggles and snorts induced by P. G. Wodehouse, the master of dry spoofery, have everything to do with the language of propriety applied to the presumption of privilege.
Wodehouse's best-known works are, of course, the tales of a harmless and helpless wealthy idler, Bertie Wooster, and his brilliant manipulator of a valet, Jeeves. It is Bertie who narrates in a voice that is delicious with honest self-appraisal and cluelessness and implicitly conveys the author's bland nonsurprise at the foolishness of the feckless rich. The Jeeves stories are piffle of great sophistication: in their recounting of ill-advised infatuations and foolish wagers, it isn't the plot or even the characters that make you laugh so much, but the narrative tone.
That adult tone is precisely what is missing from ''By Jeeves,'' the well-traveled musical adaptation of Bertie Wooster's adventures, which opened on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater yesterday. The book and lyrics (and direction) are by the playwright Alan Ayckbourn, and the music is by Andrew Lloyd Webber, neither of whom is known for pea-brained schoolboy humor.
But what they have come up with is a slapstick farce reliant on routine stumblebum business with rare forays into original jokery (and only one episode of inspired lunacy), unenlivened by a score of 13 formula songs.
John Scherer plays Bertie with an attractive and sputterless comic ease reminiscent of a young Bob Hope in road-movie mode, even if he does exhaust the mannerisms of the nonplused. And as Jeeves, Martin Jarvis delivers the expected stiff spine and arid drollery, though you may find yourself wishing for one more layer of elan, à la John Gielgud in ''Arthur,'' and Mr. Jarvis does swallow a few syllables in a set-piece recitation of doggerel, Sir Alan's winking tribute to Gilbert and Sullivan. In any case, around them the show is more of a kick in the behind than an arched eyebrow, a strain of English comedy already plumbed too deeply by Benny Hill. Wodehouse lovers be forewarned.
''By Jeeves'' has its roots in an earlier collaboration between Sir Alan and Lord Lloyd Webber a quarter-century ago, and its production history dates to 1996, since which time it has been seen in England and in several cities in this country, including Washington, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. Produced by Goodspeed Musicals, which presented the show in East Haddam, Conn., five years ago, it is pocket-size by the composer's mega-musical standards.
With a cast of 13, a 6-member band, purposely makeshift props that are frequently (and self-consciously) derided in the dialogue and a single two-tiered set (by a designer with the Wodehousian name Roger Glossop) that serves as a church hall and a wood-paneled estate house and is equipped with plenty of doors for rapid-fire entrances and exits, the show was mounted for a reported $1.9 million, a relative pittance. But it still required an emergency cash infusion from Lord Lloyd Webber to open on schedule when investors pulled out in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Certainly ''By Jeeves'' is entertainment of the candied sort we allegedly need at the moment, but it is a show with little regard for original diversion. Rather it has the feel of a project that diverted its creators, who put up the beloved Wodehouse as a challenge to their powers and presented the results to their good old pals at the men's club. Could a show be cobbled together from Wodehouse's characters and without a lot of techno-magic or an orchestra?
It does feel cobbled, particularly by Sir Alan, who has tried to replicate Wodehouse's narrative remove with an unwieldy frame that involves Bertie as the banjo-playing main attraction at a church hall fund-raiser. When his banjo turns up missing, he is urged by Jeeves to entertain everyone instead by telling a story, whose enactment, with Jeeves helping out as a deitylike narrator, becomes the main action of the play. Even if you can parse it all, that's a lot of mechanical hoisting to go through just to penetrate to a heart of nonsense.
Nonsense succeeds when it is inspired, but in ''By Jeeves'' it is merely built, albeit by a skilled carpenter. The story Sir Alan has Bertie tell involves a three-way trade of identities, a network of wayward romances and a garden maze -- a piece of cake for an old hand at theatrical rebus-making like the playwright.
As he did in his tour de force twins, ''House'' and ''Garden,'' which are performed simultaneously with the same cast and characters, he has, in effect, had his hands tied behind his back and still managed to sew together a plot that works. The handicap here is that he was working with borrowed characters. The price he pays is that the old Wodehouse standbys he appropriates, archetypal variants even in their original forms, must all be reduced to a level of absolute stupidity on the stage or the plot pyrotechnics couldn't survive.
Those who share the idiot level of intellect include the ever-eager-for-romance Bingo Little, the obsessed herpetologist Gussie Fink-Nottle (his specialty is newts), the Amazonian heiress Honoria Glossop (no relation, as far as I know, to the set designer), the easily enraged magistrate Sir Watkyn Bassett, and his ditzy daughter, Madeline. The result, among other things, is that Gussie and Bingo are indistinguishable as personalities.
And though, as Wodehouse proves, narrow-mindedness can be funny, social blindness can be funny, nitwittedness can be funny, self-justification can be funny and vacuousness can be funny, stone stupidity is boring. An audience gets tired of feeling blanket ridicule, and the cast doesn't entirely help. Sam Tsoutsouvas has a cartoony bluster as Bassett and Becky Watson makes Madeline amusingly into a British Betty Boop, but Donna Lynne Champlin plays Honoria, Bertie's romantic stalker, with the required overzealous swagger but no unusual colors, and James Kall as Gussie and Don Stephenson as Bingo are insupportably and childishly dopey.
Lord Lloyd Webber's songs serve as more of an accompaniment to the book than the other way around; this really is a play with music. And his fans will be rewarded by the simple sugars of his repetitious trademark melodies and tinka-tinka rhythms; others will find the score by the composer of ''Cats'' and ''Sunset Boulevard'' just as dull but not as grand, bordering occasionally on nursery rhymes.
There is one payoff for sticking with the show through its laborious travails, however, and that is a climactic comic number called ''It's a Pig!,'' which matches an arch Lloyd Webber ditty with a preposterous plot development, arranged, of course, by Jeeves. It involves Bertie climbing into Honoria's bedroom window wearing a pig mask and being chased around the Bassett estate by the entire cast, who are clad in a variety of silly pajamas. It's the loopy bravado, perhaps, that pushes the number from trying to irresistible, but in any case this is the single sequence of ''By Jeeves'' that might have given even Wodehouse himself a chuckle.
P.G. Wodehouse fanatics and, indeed, Anglophiles of all stripes may want to pay a visit to "By Jeeves," a winking romp that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn devised as a loving tribute to the human menagerie that populates the English author's most famous stories. But will this subset of theatergoers be enough to make the production a Broadway success? The appeal of Jeeves & Co., which is neatly bottled in this slight, self-consciously daft show, is by no means universal. To those left untickled by handles like Gussie Fink-Nottle, Honoria Glossop and Stiffy Byng, "By Jeeves" will be either a puzzlement or an irritant.
The show modestly calls itself a "musical entertainment"; it still more modestly billed itself as a "diversionary entertainment" in at least one previous U.S. outing. In any case, the thingamajig is making its first visit to Broadway (a version was first staged more than two decades ago), and it's been subsidized by the composer and other English investors, who stepped in with financing when some of the Goodspeed Musicals production's backers opted out post-Sept. 11.
The show proper is housed within a faux-amateur frame: We are the audience at a church benefit, and the banjo-strumming star is John Scherer's cheerily clueless Bertie Wooster, the gentleman who couldn't tie his shoes without the aid of his famously unflappable butler, Jeeves (a delightfully deadpan Martin Jarvis).
Bertie's banjo has gone missing (knowing smile from Jeeves), and the helpful manservant suggests relating a misadventure from Bertie's recent past. With the aid of assorted pals on hand and Jeeves' adept marshaling of costumes and props from the church basement, there is enacted before us a farcical tale of several star-crossed romances.
Bertie's goofy pal Gussie loves hysterical heiress Madeline, and she loves him. But the loping American lunkhead Cyrus Budge III (Jr.) also loves Madeline. Bingo Little is in love with Honoria, who still holds a candle for Bertie, who is smugly in love with nobody, and is horrified to read in the Times that he's engaged to Stiffy, ward of the pompously glowering Sir Watkyn Bassett, uncle of Madeline. Oh, never mind: It's for Jeeves to sort all that out.
The terrific cast performs with bouncy relish under Ayckbourn's direction, piling on the italicized Englishness that Wodehouse was sending up. Scherer is wonderfully fatuous as Bertie, with flapping eyebrows and crinkling forehead working overtime. He's also got a handsome light tenor that's nicely suited to the tone of Lloyd Webber's slight but occasionally quite charming score, which draws on classic English forebears from music hall ditties to Noel Coward to Gilbert & Sullivan (Ayckbourn supplies the lyrics).
Standouts in the supporting cast include Donna Lynne Champlin's Honoria, who crinkles her nose and galumphs about with exaggerated gusto like a horsy English girl; Becky Watson's girlish Madeline, twirling about giddily in the prettiest of Louise Belson's costumes; James Kall, spot-on as the tongue-tied and lovestruck Gussie; and Sam Tsoutsouvas, quite smashing as the blustery Sir Watkyn.
That said, the backstage humor deriving from the makeshift nature of the proceedings is overplayed, and the frenzied onstage antics aren't really funny enough to justify the show's 2½-hour length. By the time the entire cast reassembles at the curtain in costumes from "The Wizard of Oz" for a superfluous finale (even here, a megamix!), the smiles the show has raised from even the friendliest in the audience may have grown a bit thin.