Quotations from P G Wodehouse are copyright of, and reprinted by permission of, the Trustees of the Wodehouse Estate © 2019 The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)

The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)

by Tony Ring

Leave It To Jane at the Lion Theatre, W42nd Street, New York

Fifteen performances of a musical comedy at an eighty-seat theatre just off Broadway may not quite have the cachet of its original production in 1917, which ran for 167 performances at the Longacre Theatre, or the exceptional 928 performances achieved by the 1959 revival at the Sheridan Square Playhouse, but Musicals Tonight’s ‘book version’ of Leave It To Jane, from 16 to 28 April, was a triumph of its type.

For the uninitiated, the term ‘book version’ indicates that the production is not fully orchestrated or rehearsed. In UK terms, it falls somewhere between an acted play-reading and a full production, with the cast carrying their script-books to refer to if the occasion should arise. The orchestra of the original was reduced to a single piano, confidently played by James Stenborg, and the stage itself is commensurately small, restricting movement quite significantly and making a large chorus impossible to manage.

Musicals Tonight, founded in 1997 by Mel Miller, has a lot of experience in the genre, having presented over seventy lost musicals in total. Leave It To Jane was the sixth of their productions with lyrics and music by Wodehouse and Kern, and the fourth for which the book was written by Guy Bolton. Considered by many to have been one of the strongest ‘Princess’ musicals, it has an excellent score with a number of memorable songs – and Mel and his team found a cast to do it justice. There were no weak links among the voices, and the clarity of singing – an essential for a successful Wodehouse lyric, since to be able to hear his clever and subtle rhyming is as critical a part of the music as the melody – enabled all the words to be readily appreciated.

The setting of the story is Atwater, an American College, and the unlikely underlying theme is the rivalry between the College’s [American] Football team and that of nearby Bingham. Billy Bolton, about to start his third year of college education at Bingham, where his father exercises a major influence, is persuaded by the flirtatious heroine Jane to transfer his registration to Atwater, so that his All-American footballing skills can be put at Atwater’s disposal in the forthcoming combat.

Jane, played by an impressive Sarah Ziegler, was given licence to flirt as hard as she knew how in order to attract Billy to Atwater, and in the first act, when her scheming is at its peak, she makes a major contribution to four of the principal songs. Having successfully tied Billy to Atwater by the end of Act I, her role diminishes somewhat in Act II, most of which is played round the football match.

But Jane is only one of a trio of leading ladies, being well supported by Bessie (Chelsea Barker) and Flora (Kari Grunberg). Bessie’s on-off relationship with Stub is highlighted in a number of songs and exchanges. Flora is the daughter of a landlady who rents out student accommodation, which provides her with a ready supply of male company. Although she has become engaged to one of the residents pretty well every year, the relationship always seems to be broken off before the end of the final term as the male half gets to know her better. By way of partial consolation, she sings – and makes the most of – the only two unaccompanied solos in the entire production (the classic Cleopatterer and Poor Prune) as well as a comedy duet, Sir Galahad. Both Bessie and Flora are flirty and angry in turn, and woe betide the man who feels the wrong side of their tongues!

It is not just the female stars who perform well. Thom Caska as Stub had the heavy responsibility of coordinating that part of the dialogue which is designed to ensure that the audience can keep abreast of developments, as well as participating in three songs in each act and trying to win or retain Bessie’s affections. He was well supported by a number of older characters – a couple of Professors, the football trainer, a senator, a parent – as well as the students. Carter Lynch looks the part as the star footballer, the athletic Billy Bolton, and an immensely tall Australian, Jackson Eather, impresses as a home-loving farmhand fresher, who transforms himself, against his father’s express instructions, into a fashionable dude student. His southern accent was good enough to convince this Brit, and his ability to bend at right angles from the waist, on straight legs, in order to inspect the condition of another character’s shoes, is probably the show’s visual comedy highlight.

All in all, the production makes the most of an unusual story, an extremely good score, a talented group of actors and the limiting scope of the available space. Musicals Tonight is to be congratulated once again – and although it is disappointing not to find another Wodehouse comedy on the programme for the 2013-2014 season, we look forward to hearing whether our luck will change back again for 2014-2015.