If hard times and hard laughter go hand in hand, we ought to be giggling ourselves stupid these days. So it's handy that Beck Center is trotting out By Jeeves, a silly and unsubstantial musical amusement composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and written by Alan Ayckbourn. Based on the P.G. Wodehouse stories of dunderheaded Bertie Wooster and his condescendingly superior butler, Jeeves, this show generates a fair number of chuckles, thanks to a mildly wry script and some well-calibrated comic performances. The major drawback is, at more than two and a half hours with intermission, this Jeeves is too long-winded to sustain its atmosphere of airy jocularity.
The thin premise is that Bertie Wooster, an affable but none-too-bright upper-crust Brit, is about to perform a one-man banjo concert to raise money for a church in 1920s England. However, his banjo goes missing, and Jeeves, Bertie's ever-helpful manservant, steps in and constructs an impromptu theatrical presentation cobbled together from Bertie's romantic escapades, using the people and props at hand. Thus ensues a tangled tale of stolen and mistaken identities, passionate crushes delayed and interrupted, and a faked burglary leading to a Wizard of Oz-style denouement. And yes, it's just as confusing as that sounds.
All the songs are done in British music-hall style, which means that, at best, they're endearingly daft (such as "The Hallo Song," where the characters continually reintroduce themselves to each other). But a number of the tunes are eminently forgettable, and since there is really no plot to move forward musically, they serve only to extend scenes that should have been mercifully trimmed.
Through it all, an adept Beck cast, under the inventive direction of Michael Rogaliner, keeps chins up. Larry Nehring's Bertie is a lovable twit, using his angular frame to seemingly dash off in all directions at once. Bertie's sweet, sincere concern for entertaining the audience at all costs -- even while battling such jury-rigged stage elements as a clumsily assembled car with a detached steering wheel and a teeter-totter ladder complete with its own window to climb through -- keeps the farcical proceedings on track. Dana Hart (looking like Alec Baldwin's stunt double) plays the one-note character of Jeeves with cool, bemused detachment. Other strong performances: Sharon Shaffer as robustly operatic Honoria Glossop, Jarred Nichols's hyper-nervous Gussie Fink-Nottle, and Rick Carter's turn as the brawny but equally brainless American guest, Cyrus Budge III.
Small in both scope and aspiration, By Jeeves would probably play better in Beck's cozier Studio Theater, where this feather-light fare could bond more easily with the audience. But if Bush vs. Kerry has you down, there's a bit of relief to be found here.