P.G. Wodehouse's dry, unflappable manservant, Jeeves, would probably not raise an eyebrow over it, but Pittsburgh is crazy for the new musical comedy, By Jeeves, opening at Pittsburgh Public Theater Feb. 9, following previews that began Feb. 1.
Pittsburgh Public artistic director Ted Pappas told Playbill On- Line Feb. 8 there were a few tickets "floating around," but he expected the run to be sold out by Feb. 9.
"Today I saw a woman crying at the box office because she waited so long before buying," Pappas said. "It's phenomenal. It's been an absolute avalanche of ticket sales. It's also getting an incredibly good response from people who saw it [in previews]."
Pappas, now in the middle of his first season as the nonprofit resident troupe's artistic director, confirmed the company's hope that the show find a Broadway berth immediately following its March 4 close in Pittsburgh.
The Feb. 7 announcement of "last weeks" for Dirty Blonde, the frisky Claudia Shear play at the Helen Hayes Theatre in New York City, is fueling speculation that By Jeeves may be the new tenant there before the 2001 Tony Award eligibility runs out May 2. By Jeeves, with a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book, lyrics and direction by Alan Ayckbourn, is perhaps the most high-profile production in the more than quarter-century history of Pittsburgh Public Theater, which operates at the O'Reilly Theater in downtown Pittsburgh.
An international production team and a cast that includes American John Scherer as bumbling Bertie Wooster and Britisher Martin Jarvis as rational Jeeves, has been working hands-on with Ayckbourn, but also with legendary Lloyd Webber, who came to Pittsburgh Jan. 30-31 to take a look at the aborning production. Musical changes and lyric rewrites have been incorporated into the show in the past two weeks, Pappas said.
Both Goodspeed Musicals, which staged the show's American premiere in 1996, and Pittsburgh Public Theater, will partner as co-producers for an imminent future commercial staging. Broadway is the goal of the staging, but venues have been full recently. It's thought a cavernous theatre would be wrong for the 13-actor jewel-box musical, which harkens to the days of the intimate Princess Theatre musicals written by Wodehouse, Jerome Kern and others in the 1920s. The Hayes seats about 600. The Booth Theatre, which seats about 800, is booked with Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at least to April 1.
By Jeeves is a rewrite of Jeeves, a 1975 musical by Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber that did not find wide fame.
The hope that By Jeeves might move on to a greater commercial future began several years ago when the U.S. premiere production was staged in 1996 (following a debut in London) at The Norma Terris Theatre, the developmental house in Chester, CT, run by Goodspeed Musicals. Although that staging played subsequent engagements in 1997 at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, it did not continue beyond there.
Based on the dry, charming, farcical Jeeves stories by P.G. Wodehouse, By Jeeves takes place in a church hall where Bertie Wooster is scheduled to give a banjo recital. According to production notes, "Jeeves, a lover of music, steals the banjo, forcing Bertie to improvise with a dizzying tale full of romantic entanglements and mistaken identities involving his friends and their love interests."
Scherer most recently worked with director Harold Prince on the world premiere of 3hree at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. He played Bertie Wooster in the U.S. premiere of By Jeeves at Goodspeed-at-Chester, the Geffen Playhouse, and the Kennedy Center. He received a Helen Hayes Award nomination in Washington DC for his performance. On Broadway, he appeared in Sunset Boulevard as Joe Gillis, and at the Goodspeed Opera House in George M.
Jarvis, one of Britain's most distinguished actors, starred in many award winning West End and Royal National Theatre productions of plays by Sir Alan Ayckbourn (Woman in Mind, Just Between Ourselves) and Harold Pinter (Other Places, Precisely); as well as Frayn, Hare, Nichols, Shakespeare, Shaw, and Wilde. He recently appeared at London's Almeida Theatre (The Doctor's Dilemma), Donmar Warehouse (Passion Play), and California's South Coast Repertory (Skylight).
"In order to accommodate the unique production challenges and the vision of the director and design team," according to a statement, the Pittsburgh Public's three-quarter thrust space, the O'Reilly Theater, will be changed into a modified proscenium layout.
The cast also features top North American theatre talent, including the lauded farceur Heath Lamberts (the Shaw Festival, Beauty and the Beast) as Sir Watkyn Bassett, Emily Loesser (Titanic) as Stiffy Byng, Donna Lynne Champlin (as Honoria Glossop), Don Stephenson (Bingo Little), James Kall (Gussie Fink-Nottle), Becky Watson (Madeline Bassett), Ian Knauer (Harold "Stinker" Pinker) and Steve Wilson (Cyrus Budge III). Tom Ford, Molly Renfroe, and Court Whisman round out the ensemble.
After two decades of lugubrious pop opera and serious-minded ensemble shows, pure musical comedy seems to be making a comeback with such non-revival tuners as The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Full Monty and now By Jeeves.
"I think it's wonderful, because it's all about joy," said Pappas. "Don't we always have some sort of pendulum swing in the arts? You know what these musical comedies have? They have personalities: They have actors who have clearly delineated characters. Musical comedy, from the first day it was invented, has always depended on star performers. It's the actor's time again. That's the secret behind the resurgence of musical comedy. It harkens back to the Durante, Merman era..."
Ayckbourn has written 56 plays, including the recent London and Off-Broadway comedies, Communicating Doors and Comic Potential. He is the artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England. His works include Relatively Speaking, Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Just Between Ourselves, How the Other Half Loves, A Chorus of Disapproval, Woman in Mind, A Small Family Business, Man of the Moment, Communicating Doors, Bedroom Farce and House/Garden.
Lloyd Webber is one of the most successful and popular theatre composers in history, having composed Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Jeeves (later reworked as By Jeeves), Evita, Variations and Tell Me on a Sunday (later combined as Song & Dance), Cats, Starlight Express, The Phantom of the Opera, Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard, Whistle Down the Wind and The Beautiful Game.
P.G. Wodehouse wrote more than 120 novels, magazine articles, musicals, plays, and film scripts. Born in 1881 in Guildford, Surrey, Wodehouse served as drama critic for Vanity Fair, which led to his collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton on the musicals Oh, Boy!, Leave it to Jane and Oh, Lady! Lady! He also wrote Oh, Kay! with George and Ira Gershwin.
Sheila Carter choreographs By Jeeves. Musical supervision is by Michael O'Flaherty. F. Wade Russo is musical director. The design team includes Roger Glossup (scenic), Louise Belson (costume), Mick Hughes (lighting), and Richard Ryan (sound). The production stage manager is Daniel S. Rosokoff and the assistant stage manager is Hillary Cook. Most of that team was responsible for the 1996 London production, as well as the American premiere at Goodspeed.
Pittsburgh Public tickets are $28-$50. The O'Reilly Theatre is at 621 Penn Avenue, in downtown Pittsburgh. Student rates are available. For information, call (412) 316-1600, or visit the website at www.ppt.org.
To view Playbill On-Line's Brief Encounter interview with Alan Ayckbourn, click here.