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The expression is a common one, and we all know what it means, but have you ever really considered how a man with two left feet might dance?
John Scherer has. He plays upper-class twit Bertie Wooster in By Jeeves, the giddy, P.G. Wodehouse-based musical that’s just taken up residence at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, and in a number called “Wooster Will Entertain You,” he must make his character’s terpsichorean inadequacy look persuasively hopeless while in some fashion living up to that song title.
Bertie, of course, is a man who hasn’t a clue that he is inadequate. In fact, he hasn’t a clue, period, which is what makes him game, when his banjo is stolen at the outset of the one-man church benefit that is By Jeeves’ framing device, to try something else to entertain the tens of people who’ve shown up. The first something else that occurs to him, alas, is to ape Gene Kelly.
So he launches into a song-and-dance number, tryingand flubbingevery minor step audiences have ever taken for granted. Not leaps or high kicks, mind, just the little stuff. He does, for instance, one of those ba-da-boom, right-arm-extended, right-foot-stomp gestures with which vaudeville entertainers have been punctuating jokes for decades. Bright smile notwithstanding, it looks rather as if he has tripped on his trouser cuff.
Undeterred, he bounces on the balls of his feet, but with legs just a tad too far apart he manages mostly to reinforce how firmly he’s in contact with the floor. Trying a turnyou can see him counting it outhe ends up facing not quite front, and must take three awkward little steps to reorient himself. Attempting to place one foot in front of the other, heel to toe, he’s a hobbled flamingo. A simple crossover step sends him listing to the right like a yacht taking on water.
Tapping being out of the question (the only sound Bertie can coax from either foot is a loudish clomp), he briefly considers tackling a soft-shoe. But even he knows there’s nothing soft about his footwork. Taking a running jump at Fred Astaire, he’d be bound to land as Lon Chaney. So he demurs, with a quick, “No, can’t do that either,” and a dopey grin.
Stumblebumdom personified, he is every kid who has ever sweated the prom. Still, he bounces and stomps, skitters and galumphs, all the while singing something about the Code of the Woosters.
Standing off to one side is the man who gives Bertie his delusions of adequacy: the inestimable Jeeves (Richard Kline). Without his unflappable butler to save him, Bertie would be as hopeless as he is hapless. With him, he somehow gets by.
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Jeeves is the one, for instance, who comes up with the idea of replacing the scheduled banjo concert with the story of Bertie’s inadvertently romance-plagued weekend at Totleigh Towers. By raiding a community theater’s costume closet, and crafting props out of anything he can find backstagetwo cardboard boxes and a sofa make a serviceable carhe takes care of the stagecraft, while Wooster and his cronies take care of the plot. Those cronies include goofy clergyman Harold “Stinker” Pinker, painfully shy Gussie Fink-Nottle, obstreperous American Cyrus Budge III, and pint-size Bingo Little, as well as such distaff adornments to their social set as the galloping Honoria Glossop, ditzy Madeline Bassett, and calculating Stiffy Byng (played by Emily Loesser, daughter of Guys and Dolls composer Frank Loesser).
The plot’s complicationswhich are Byzantine enough to give Deep Blue a headachestem from Bertie’s appropriating Fink-Nottle’s name to avoid embarrassment, and everyone else then having to lie about their own identities so he won’t be caught. Hi-jinks ensue, as do lo-jinks, and by the end of the evening the whole cast appears to have landed in Oz. Never mind. None of it makes the slightest sense, but if you put your mind in neutral, it’s easy enough to be swept along.
By Jeeves is a revised version of a larger, less successful musical called Jeeves that Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber presented on London’s West End in 1975. Though there are a couple of entirely new numbers, Webber’s music remains mostly intact, even when wedded to new lyrics. The current show’s title number, for instance, seems to be a reworking of a ditty originally called “Eulalie.” I say “seems to be” because, try as I may, I can’t retain Lloyd Webber’s melodies in my head for long before they all start turning into “I Don’t Know How to Love Him, Argentina.” Though I came straight home from the theater to put on the Jeeves album I’d found in a remainders bin a couple of decades ago, and all but two of the melodies sounded familiar, I wouldn’t swear that they came from the show I’d just seen. Could’ve just as easily been from Phantom or Dreamcoat, or Superstar. One number on the album even sounds a bit like that dreadful new song Madonna sang in the film Evita. Which is one way of saying the score is catchy, I suppose.
Ayckbourn’s lyrics aren’t going to make Stephen Sondheimor even Martin Charninnervous, but they’re chirpy enough for these circumstances, and his book is as clever and satirically sharp as the comedies for which he’s better known. He also staged the show, which means he deprived himself of an editor, which, frankly, the second act could have used. Still, under his direction, the show plays like all those cheerful little musicals (Dames at Sea, The Boyfriend) that used to clutter up off-Broadway in the 1960s. It’s brightly sung, briskly acted, and dopey enough that it eventually batters down whatever defenses an audience has walked in with.
Scherer is great fun, especially when playing air banjo in an uproarious finale. And though all the supporting cast members are funny, special kudos are due Randy Redd for his uproariously sniveling Bingo, Donna Lynne Champlin for her horsey, overwhelming Honoria, and of course, Kline, whose restrained, slightly chilly Jeeves might easily have been swamped in so much silliness. Ayckbourn has allowed him just one moment to cut looseblink and you’ll miss itand he turns a back-kick and a wild-eyed expression into one of the evening’s biggest laughs.
Neither Kline nor Scherer is quite what you’ll have pictured if you’ve read Wodehouse’s Jeeves storiesScherer actually seems to have modeled Bertie as much on Dan Quayle as on the novels’ characterbut they’re both a hoot. And as laughter is really the evening’s only point, that’s enough.CP