By Jeeves Book by Alan Ayckbourn. Based on the Jeeves stories by P. G. Wodehouse
Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Alan Ayckbourn. Choreographed by Sheila Carter . Set Design by Roger Glossop. Costume Design by Louise Belson. Lighting Design by Mick Hughes. Sound Design by Richard Ryan. Music Supervision and Direction by Michael O'Flaherty. Choreographed by Sheila Carter Cast:
John Scherer, Martin Jarvis, Donna Lynne Champlin, Don Stephenson, James Kall, Sam Tsoutsouvas, Becky Watson, Emily Loesser, Ian Knaufer, Steve Wilson, Tom Ford, Molly Renfroe, Court Whisman
The arrival of By Jeeves on Broadway could scarcely be better timed. When musical comedies are more in demand now than they have been in many other recent years, the show, which just opened at the Helen Hayes Theatre, provides a refreshing alternative to the larger and louder musicals to be found elsewhere.
What might be particularly surprising is that the driving force behind By Jeeves is Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer of musicals like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, shows which couldn't be more different from what is now in vogue. If, for some reason, Andrew Lloyd Webber isn't the first name that springs to mind when you think about musical comedy, you're not alone.
But, to be fair, By Jeeves is not simply Webber's response to the new musical comedy craze. In fact, it's not exactly new at all. Webber and Alan Ayckbourn, who supplies the book, lyrics, and direction for this production, originally devised the idea for the show in the mid-1970s, after Webber's success with Jesus Christ Superstar. They obtained permission from P. G. Wodehouse to adapt the characters and situations of his popular "Jeeves" stories into a musical. The resulting musical, entitled Jeeves, flopped. After much revision, a new incarnation of the show opened in London and America in 1996, to much greater success, and it is that version of the show that has finally come to Broadway.
Ayckbourn's book for By Jeeves focuses primarily on "Bertie", Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, played by John Scherer. Wooster is holding a banjo concert to raise money for the Little Wittam Church Steeple Fund when tragedy strikes and his banjo is stolen. Under the advice and stage direction of his faithful manservant, Jeeves (Martin Jarvis), Wooster instead chooses to re-enact one of the many escapades from his life to entertain his audience.
In this story, Wooster agrees to trade identities with his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle (James Kall) to facilitate his romance with Madeline Bassett (Becky Watson). Complications ensue with multiple intertwining relationships and Wooster changing his identity a number of additional times. As Wooster's performance takes place entirely within the church, all the additional scenery and props are suggested. With Jeeves' knowing guidance (and that of the show's set designer Roger Glossop and costume designer Louise Belson), Wooster is able to represent an automobile with the use of little more than a sofa and a few cardboard boxes, a tall building with only a ladder, and so on. Jeeves is never at a loss for ideas.
Neither is Ayckbourn. As book writer, he manages to highlight all the funniest moments with a fair amount of creativity and wit, and keep the show bright all the way through. As director, Ayckbourn is generally able to keep the pace high as well, though it sags a bit during some of the book scenes, and he loses some control of the story near the end when the real and fantasy world become a little too tangled up.
The show's songs are generally quite simple and understated, and strongly in character with the show. The primary exception is "Half a Moment" in the second act, an overwrought power ballad that would be not out of place in many of Webber's earlier shows. While not exactly a bad song, it is the only time in By Jeeves that the music draws you away from the world of the play. Most of the rest of the score charms gently, particularly in the beautiful "Travel Hopefully," the silly "The Hallo Song" (in which everyone reintroduces themselves time and time again), and the very catchy (although slightly repetitive) title tune.
Scherer and Jarvis are the two real stars of the evening. As Wooster, Scherer is at the forefront of practically every scene, and handles the story's absurd twists and turns as effectively as he handles the songs. Jarvis makes an even stronger impression. He has a rich, full speaking voice that makes Jeeves a wonderful controlled counterpart to Wooster's over emotionalism. His dry sense of humor and way of tossing off a throwaway insult or joke helps Jarvis steal nearly every scene he's in.
The other performers, though all good, are not quite as strong. Of the actresses (Donna Lynne Champlin, Becky Watson, and Emily Loesser) who portray the women in Wooster's story, Watson is the funniest and most watchable, though the others do what they can with mostly less interesting material. Kall has a number of strong comic moments as Fink-Nottle, as does Sam Tsoutsouvas as Sir Watkyn Bassett, Madeline's controlling father. The other performers have fewer opportunities to shine, but do what they can, and provide strong singing and dancing support.
Ayckbourn's vital assistance notwithstanding, if By Jeeves is a true indication of Andrew Lloyd Webber's versatility as a composer, we may not have seen (and heard) the last from him. The revisions he has made to the show in the twenty-six years or so since its original inception are strong, and By Jeeves works quite well, if not perfectly, as a lightweight musical comedy to bring a different type of laughter to Broadway. Perhaps, like Jeeves, Webber will always have something new up his sleeve.