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Good heavens! A British bachelor is embarrassingly engaged again — to two different women. There’s a pinstriped gangster ready to put him and his best friend in a coffin at the slightest provocation. He’s wearing terrible socks.
Call for Jeeves, one last time!
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has proven the success of playwright Margaret Raether’s Jeeves series twice now, with productions of both Jeeves Intervenes and Jeeves in Bloom that were wildly successful for the company. So it makes sense they’d go for the trifecta with Jeeves Takes A Bow, the third and final adaptation Raether wrote of P.G. Wodehouse’s classic tales of a bumbling British aristocrat named Bertie and his perfect valet Jeeves.
The Jeeves formula is simple. We are introduced to Jeeves (Matt Daniels, reprising the role for the third time) and his employer Bertram Wilberforce Wooster (Chris Klopatek), a paragon of Britain’s idle rich. A meddling aunt shows up to try and reform Bertie. We encounter a school chum of Bertie’s in a pickle — in this case, Nigel Bingham-Binkersteth (Chase Stoeger), Binky for short. In his attempts to help, Bertie gets himself confused for his friend, with comically unfortunate results. And just before it all goes to hell, Jeeves steps in with a multi-layered, complex chessmaster’s solution that ends with everyone getting what they want, be it marriage, bachelorhood or just a clean, tidy living room.
If Jeeves Takes A Bow were merely a paint-by-numbers recreation of that formula, it’d still have been an exquisite evening of theater. Having mastered the role over five years and two productions, Daniels has the comic timing of Jeeves down perfectly, catching letters in midair as Bertie throws them and smoothly gliding in and out of conversations to drop off or take away teacups before their owners even know they’re gone. There’s a bit of meta-humor inherent in the mistaken identities of Klopatek and Stoeger’s characters, since they’ve both played Bertie in Jeeves productions (Klopatek originating the role), and having both played the part of the buffoon before allows them to perform their buffoonery in tandem all the more effectively.
But Raether’s added a wrinkle to the plot that breathes new life into the premise: Jeeves and Bertie have traveled to New York City, a realm that is both a welcome respite for Bertie from his bothersome aunts and deeply unsettling for the normally unflappable Jeeves, caught off-guard by handshakes, showgirl gowns and the peculiar American custom of Prohibition.
Just seeing Jeeves temporarily off his game is worth the trip across the Atlantic alone (don’t worry, he’s back to his old self after a few scenes), but it’s the culture clash between the Brits and the Yanks that really punches up the plot.
Anna Cline is a vivacious burst of energy as Ruby LeRoy, the actress Binky has fallen in love with while pretending to be Bertie, and just about every heavily accented line she utters is a showstopper. Her knight in shining zoot suit is “Knuckles” McCann (Steven M. Koehler), a protective mobster with an amusing connection to Ruby who injects the play with more legitimate danger than any antagonist Jeeves and Bertie have faced before. Both give the play a distinctly Broadway sensibility, only compounded by the actual song-and-dance number they participate in near the end of the play.
It’s not only the Americans who punch up the play though. Bertie may have no aunts in America, but one has sent him the next best thing: a prim, proper and morally upright young fiancee named Vivienne Duckworth (Kay Allmand). Allmand is a gem from her first moments onstage, playing the role with a rigid physicality matched only by Daniels, but she’s even stronger once she loosens up, increasingly corrupted for the better by New York’s many temptations.
No critique of Jeeves Takes A Bow would be complete without a separate round of applause for director Tami Workentin, who’s directed all three plays in the Jeeves cycle. Leading actors and designers to create a world of impeccable timing and immersive hijinks isn’t easy to do once; to do it three times is a triumph in itself, even with the good fortune to have some of her cast members returning more than once.
Bertie’s motto is “In Jeeves we trust.” Insert Workentin’s name, Raether’s, or MCT itself, and the sentiment seems likely to ring equally true.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Jeeves Takes A Bow runs through May 3 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets range from $15 to $40 and can be purchased at 414-291-7800 or milwaukeechambertheatre.com.