Monday, March 5, 2012


x_421613_3165875702532_1134584804_3243285_713353386_nThe nuances of the British caste system are alien—and amusing—to egalitarian Americans, especially given that so many English nobles appear to be intellectual lightweights with a supreme sense of entitlement (okay, not the Crawleys living upstairs at Downton Abbey). But when they are rescued by a superior being who just happens to reside downstairs, the result is too delicious for words.

In a series of beloved novels, P.G. Wodehouse created two such delightful characters: aristocratic fop Bertie Wooster (above) and his unflappable "fixer": his valet Jeeves. Although Wodehouse poked fun at his fellow Brits, his readers devoured the books and appreciated his gentle satire.

Leave it to a couple of renowned Brits to turn one of the tales into a musical play called By Jeeves. None other than Alan Ayckbourn has written the book and lyrics while Andrew Lloyd Webber has composed the music. Kudos to the Chester Theatre Group for bringing a delightful and polished production to the intimate Black River Playhouse!

Under the fluid, adept hand of director and star Jeff Jackson (ably assisted by co-director and producer Roseann Ruggiero), ten talented actors—aided by an ensemble of four who move props around, on and off the small in-the-round playing space—bring the wacky characters to life. Cavorting around the stage, singing and dancing with abandon, they recount a series of anecdotes from Bertie Wooster's life, a move necessitated when Bertie is left "totally un-banjo-ed" when his instrument is stolen and he must do something to entertain the people who have come to see him perform!

Of course, the anecdote involves a very convoluted plot, complete with grown men swooning over daffy women, switching identities, jealously going after rivals—all while Bertie tries mightily to stay unattached and above the fray. He doesn't, and when that happens, he calls upon Jeeves to supply forgotten details or sort out the mess! All this turmoil is set to charming melodies and clever lyrics, including a romantic duet, a patter song, a complicated dance piece and a grand finale, so we really are entertained by Wooster.

sc16_64849_3166134429000_1134584804_3243330_1687821793_nJeff Jackson (left in photo) is wonderful as the hapless Bertie Wooster, determined to uphold the Wooster code, which is a series of ridiculous "rules" too numerous to list here (a program insert lays them out for you). He sings, he dances, he mugs; he's handsome, he's adorable, he's a fop! His inanity is matched by Jeff Fiorello (right in photo) as his pal Augustus "Gussie" Fink-Nottle, who has trouble saying the words of a sentence in the correct (and comprehensible) order; Rich McNanna as the loopy doofus Bingo Little; Eric Harper as the unfortunate minister Harold "Stinker" Pinker, who always manages to break things; and Mike Patierno as the loud American jam magnate Cyrus Budge III, Jr. And rounding out the male characters is Mark Dacey as the villain of the piece, Sir Watkyn Bassett, Bertie's nemesis from a time Bertie appeared as a defendant in his court.

sc32_422022_3165927023815_1134584804_3243306_576536407_nThe distaff side of the cast doesn't fare much better; they're just as deliciously strange. Juliet Brines is hilarious as the well-built Honoria Glossop, once engaged to Bertie but now beloved by Bingo. Her hearty (and braying) laugh is all you need to hear to understand why Bertie dropped her. As Madeline "Maddy" Bassett, the young woman beloved by Gussie and whose hare-brained scheme sets the mayhem in motion, Tina Kaye is scrumptious, with her little girl voice, blonde curls and wide blue eyes. Kathleen Campbell Jackson is equally terrific as Stephanie "Stiffy" Byng, enamored of Stinker, who uses a newspaper announcement of her engagement to Bertie to push her beau into declaring his intentions. This article adds another layer to the bedlam, this one involving Bertie's pretending to be a burglar dressed in a pig mask!

x_431136_3166315953538_1134584804_3243618_1261599205_nIf all this seems too fey, it is Bob Longstreet (right) as the sober, practical, rather supercilious valet Jeeves whose ab-fab performance brings down the house every time he opens his mouth. He sounds as though he's channeling Downton Abbey's Carson the butler, but it's no direct imitation. In the face of the pandemonium, his equanimity is incredible. Longstreet looks the part to a tee, with his silver hair, stiff posture and snooty delivery. His performance is a tour de force.

Actually, the entire production is a tour de force, but I don't want to give away too much to spoil the fun. Set design (Jeff Jackson), costumes (Mark Happel and Scaramouche Costumes) and lighting (Ellen Fraker-Glasscock) superbly set the time and space. Bernadette Baron has choreographed a deft "ballet" of rather large groups of people moving around the stage while lustily singing; "Love's Maze" really does suggest people moving around a maze! Most amusing is the song "Travel Hopefully" wherein Jeeves pushes Bertie around in a car constructed (onstage!) of two pew-like seats and other "found" items while Bertie makes vrum-vrum sounds and Jeeves tells the story! Inspired! And the entire cast is to be congratulated for speaking in and maintaining proper British accents. Special mention should be made of Tom Rogers' musical direction; it sprightliness really keeps the complex story moving along at a great clip while supplying terrific accompaniment for the actors.

You've probably guessed that I adored By Jeeves at the Chester Theatre Group. It's one more example of this troupe's excellent work. You don't have to have read any of the Jeeves stories to enjoy the play; I hadn't but my companion had, and we both had a blast! So if you're a fan of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, get on over to the Black River Playhouse to meet Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. But hurry up: By Jeeves runs only through March 18, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM. The Black River Playhouse is located on Grove Street in Chester. For information and tickets, call 908.879.7304 or visit online at

Photos by Rich Kowalski.